College, costs, and inequality

Posted: 19 December 2015 in Uncategorized

mike1july1

Why let the facts get in the way of good old-fashioned neoclassical ideology?

Greg Mankiw certainly doesn’t.

In his latest column, in which he offers “Three Reasons for Those Hefty College Tuition Bills,” Mankiw does get one thing right: workers with a college degree earn more, over the course of their lives, than workers who do not.

That’s it. Everything else Mankiw writes on the subject is simply contradicted by the facts.

First, as one of his own colleagues (Larry Summers) has shown, increasing educational attainment will not significantly change overall earnings inequality. (The reason is that a large share of earnings inequality is at the top of the earnings distribution, and changing college shares will not shrink those differences.)

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Second, even in his own state, workers with less than a college degree have not benefited from growing college enrollments. Their real wages are no higher today than they were in 1979.

Third, as I have explained before, college costs (and, with them, student debt) are not rising because the salaries of “skilled workers”—that is, professors—are rising. Not when about two-thirds of faculty in the United States are now non-tenure and half of those work only part-time, often with several different teaching jobs. Their salaries are certainly not driving escalating college tuition.

Mankiw is simply wrong about the relationship between education and inequality, the effects of growing college enrollment on unskilled workers’ wages, and the causes of the increase in the costs of higher education.

I’m still grading final essays and exams. If Mankiw handed in that column for one of my courses, he’d have a hard time getting a passing grade.

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