Is education good for growth?

It has long been received wisdom that education spurs economic growth. The education variable pops up as significant in many cross-country regressions. And many of the East Asian countries have had high investment in education and high rates of economic growth.

So how might a skeptical take on this matter look? Here is one pithy excerpt:

…there is actually a striking global correspondence between the world economic slowdown since 1973 and ever-increasing levels of educational spending. Comparisons between countries also confound the idea that more education translates into more growth. For example, South Korea is often given as an example of a country that made education a priority since the 1960s and saw significant economic growth. But as Professor Alison Wolf from King’s College London points out, Egypt has also prioritised investing in education, but its growth record has been poor (4). Between 1970 and 1998 Egypt’s primary enrolment rates grew to more than 90 per cent, secondary schooling levels went from 32 per cent to 75 per cent, and university education doubled – yet over the same period Egypt moved from being the world’s forty-seventh poorest country to being the forty-eighth.

A retort might be that education isn’t the sole determinant of growth – other factors may offset its positive economic role – but it remains a necessary one. But this argument doesn’t stand up either. The rapid growth of Hong Kong, another of the East Asian tigers, wasn’t accompanied by substantial investment in education. Its expansion of secondary and university education came later, as more prosperous Hong Kong parents used some of their newfound wealth to give their children a better education than they had had.

William Easterly doubts the evidence:

‘African countries with rapid growth in human capital [the fashionable term for people’s work abilities, especially levels of education] over the 1960 to 1987 period – countries like Angola, Mozambique, Ghana, Zambia, Madagascar, Sudan, and Senegal – were nevertheless growth disasters. Countries like Japan, with modest growth in human capital, were growth miracles. Other East Asian miracles like Singapore, Korea, China, and Indonesia did have rapid growth in human capital, but equal to or less than that of the African growth disasters. To take one comparison, Zambia had slightly faster expansion in human capital than Korea, but Zambia’s growth rate was seven percentage points lower.

‘…Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union compare favourably with Western Europe and North America in years of schooling attained. Yet we now know that [gross domestic product] per worker was only a small fraction of Western European and North American levels. For example, the 97 per cent secondary enrolment ratio of the United States is only slightly higher than Ukraine’s 92 per cent, but the United States has nine times the per capita income of Ukraine’ (6).

My main worry concerns the hoary distinction between correlation and causation. The consumption component of education is commonly underrated. Rich countries spend more on education for the same reason that they consume more leisure. See my previous MR post on education and economic growth.


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