Sunday, October 11, 2009

Another Misleading Report About High School Dropouts and Income

So, below I have reproduced the take home table in a new report on the social/economic loss resulting from high school dropouts in America, and the major gains we could make if we could just get people to graduate.

Of course, this argument is totally ridiculous. Among other things, it assumes the following:
  • That if inner-city kids got high school diplomas they would automatically also head up into the next income strata.
  • That having or not having a diploma is THE key influence on one's income strata.
  • That new graduates would have the same academic rigor and opportunity of prior graduates.
Reports like these simply feed the "Education Gospel" in America, the myth that education is a solution for economic and social problems. There is little or no evidence that this is the case.

The report concludes with the following two sentences:
1) There is an overwhelming national economic and social
justice need to prevent existing high school students from dropping out without earning a diploma and to encourage the re-enrollment and eventual graduation of those dropouts who have already left the school system.

2) In the absence of concerted efforts to bolster their academic achievement, their formal schooling, their occupational skills, and their cumulative work experience, their immediate and long term labor market prospects are likely to be quite bleak in the U.S. economy even after the end of the current economic recession, which for many of these youth has turned into a labor market depression.
Note that #1 is not saying the same thing as #2. It is not at all clear that high school graduation will lead to the results discussed in #2. Furthermore, as I have noted before, EDUCATION DOES NOT CREATE JOBS. So even if you get #2, you won't necessarily (likely will not) get many graduates into the next income strata.

These kind of reports especially piss me off in today's economic crisis. "Hey, kids, if you had just stayed in school, look what you could have done. But too bad. You didn't. So your unemployment is your own fault." Not what the authors meant to say, I'm sure. But that's part of what it does say. And it's wrong.

Note: in the comments, Sherman Dorn correctly adds:
. . . Yes, increasing graduation will not in and of itself change the macroeconomic circumstances that shape people's lives. . . .

On the other hand, there are also recent reports that use better estimates, and even if you are persuaded (as I am) that there are significant sheepskin/queueing effects of graduation, there is at least part of education that has a human capital benefit for general productivity. It's not as much as Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz claim, but it's not zero, either.

And there is also reason to be concerned from an equity standpoint. Even if high school graduation does nothing other than confirm credentials, the unequal distribution of those credentials should worry us.

Bottom line: I dislike the crude calculations and the "crisis" rhetoric, but there is a problem we have to address.
To which I reply:
I agree with your points. Wasn't cutting the issue quite this closely. The point is not that we shouldn't care at all about graduation. The point is that this link is much weaker and problematic than framed here and in many other places. And this framing has effects on our public dialogue around education.

If we actually educated poor kids to "think" it would be even more critical.

I wish it was more critical than it is.

Educational AttainmentAnnual
Tax Payments
Annual Earnings
Plus Prison Costs
Lifetime Net Fiscal
<12 or 12, No H.S. Diploma6,0876,197-5,191
H.S. Diploma/GED9,9383,551287,384
Some College13,2442,508461,661
Bachelor Degree20,5801,236793,079

This may be an example of learning too much SPSS and not enough social theory and research design. Correlation is not causality. Prior results do not guarantee future returns. Too harsh? Feel free to comment.

At least I learned how to make tables in html. Not a total waste of time. [Note retitled columns to save space]

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