Do we spend too much on education?

Do Americans spend too much on education? asks the New York Times‘ Room for Debate.

Americans are spending more and more on education, but the resulting credentials — a high-school diploma and college degrees — seem to be losing value in the labor market.

Americans who go to college are triply hurt by this. First, as taxpayers: state and federal education budgets have ballooned since the 1950s. Second, as consumers: the average college student spends $17,000 a year on school, and those with loans graduate more than $23,000 in debt. And third, as a worker: in 1970, an applicant with a college degree was among an elite 11 percent, but now almost 3 in 10 adults have a degree.

Several debaters kick around the question: Does college pay? Others asks whether the traditional comprehensive high school pays.

Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, calls for tailoring K-12 education to students’ interests.

Other developed countries offer adolescents a choice of curricula. Finland, for example, offers all students leaving ninth grade — the end of compulsory schooling — the option of attending a three-year general studies high school or a three-year vocational high school, with about 50 percent of each age cohort enrolling in each type of high school. The “comprehensive” American high school has outlived its usefulness, but our policy makers have chosen to weaken its academic goals and ignore its career-forming capacity rather than serve the diversity of adolescent interests, talents and needs in grades 9 through 12 — at a much greater cost to the students, their families and society

Middlebury Psychology Professor Barbara Hofer wants to reallocate time and money.

High school degrees offer far less in the way of preparation for work than they might, or than many other nations currently offer, creating a growing skills gap in our economy. We encourage students to go on to college whether they are prepared or not, or have a clear sense of purpose or interest, and now have the highest college dropout rate in the world.

We might look to other counties (like Germany, Finland or Denmark) for models of how high schools can offer better training, as well as the development of a work ethic and the intellectual skills needed for continued learning and development. I recommend Harvard’s 2011 “Pathways to Prosperity” report for more attention to this persistence of the “forgotten half” (those who do not go on to college) and ideas about how to address this issue.

“Spending on K-12 schools, adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth, has roughly tripled over the last 50 years, yet there is little solid evidence that today’s students are better prepared for work and citizenship than their grandparents were — and even some evidence that they are less so,” writes Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and an Ohio University economist.


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  1. To do an apples-to-apples comparison with 50 years ago, we have to first segregate out spending on special education (which pretty much was non-existent back then) and spending on heathcare for teachers, other school staff, retired school employees, and their families. Special ed and healthcare have caused rampant inflation in school budgets without improving anything for most students.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    We have two forces colliding. One is that “everybody should go to college”, and then the fact that not everybody can manage/wants to/has any interest in college. The HS result is college-prep lite, which prepares the unfortunate victims for pretty much precisely nothing but which is taking up more and more of the curriculum.

  3. To add to the comment above about the high cost of special education, the disturbing reality is that, while costs are high (20-40% of school budgets, but some estimates) we really don’t know what that money is spent on. Is it for students? is it for teaching and learning? or is it for compliance? bureacracy? lawsuits and the threat of litigation? Our lack of knowledge some 35 years after this law was enacted…. on where the money comes from and where it goes is, to quote a recent Fordham Foundation report, scandalous.

    Before we can decide if we’re spending too much or too little, let us learn what we are spending it on and whether or not that is our intent.

  4. As a nation, we spend approximately 600 Billion (annually) to education an estimated 52 million persons aged 5-18 in our public schools. Estimate that 5-10 percent of the 52 million do not attend school for whatever reason, so we’ll lop off 4 million, which leaves us with 48 million students (which is an estimated 12,500 per student) in the US.

    When public schools started eliminating career/vocation education, they started to push a ‘college-prep’ type degree for everyone (not realizing that not everyone has the same interests). The high school I attended had three types of study tracks, general education, career/vocational, and college-prep (this was in 1978-1981 mind you).

    The problem with high school diplomas is that they’re essentially worthless today, due to the fact that many people who have them have not mastered skills which I would consider essential for any high school graduate 25+ years ago (math, reading, writing, history, government, science, etc). I’ve personally seen many high school graduates struggle to fill out a job application, cannot prepare a resume, can’t follow instructions, handle basic measurements, and many other things which when I went to school was common knowledge.

    HR departments are also to blame, as they continue to value bachelor’s degrees over actual work experience in many cases, and in many fields, actual experience is preferred over a degree (esp. if the field is a technical one).

    We spend more on education per capita than any other nation (save perhaps one or two) on the planet, but studies have PROVEN that the longer a student goes on in public schooling, the less they actually know. In international exams, our elementary school students (typically grades 1-5) hold their own against peers in other countries…they lose ground in middle school (grades 6-8), and have lost a LOT of ground by high school.

    Here is a sobering statistic, by 2020, 3 of every 5 college degrees in the U.S. will be awarded to women (it may even approach 2 of every 3 degrees), and at the moment, a male graduating from high school (assuming he actually does) is typically 1 to 2 grade levels behind in reading, math, and writing compared to a female high school graduate.

  5. Bill Leonard says:

    The question is less what we spend on education, than whom we are spending it on, and what we are getting for that money.

    Seems to me, the answer is: damned little.

    I went to high school 1957-1961. I was editor of the school paper. That high school hasn’t had a school paper for at least a decade now, but it has all sorts of classes for high school girls who either are expecting babies, or who have already delivered. To be blunt, most will spend the remainder of their lives on public assistance.

    This paradigm seems to be fairly common across the US — and yet, the education establishment always seems to wonder why so many middle-class people and above do everything they can to get their kids into elite public schools, charter schools, and especially, charter schools.

    Well hell, who wouldn’t?

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Bill Leonard. They know. They don’t wonder. But they can’t afford to admit it. The ‘crats and their establishment buddies have perfected the art of seeming innocently bewildered when somebody, subject to some outrage, leaves the pub ed system.
    What, are you racist?

  7. Certainly we seem to spend the most money on those with the lowest ability and/or least motivation. We’re too ready to allow them to disrupt/diminish opportunities for the cognitively capable and motivated.

  8. Bill Leonard says:

    Not racist, Mr. Aubrey, just realist.

  9. Disrupting opportunities for the more-able is good:  it decreases the gap and makes society more fair!  </sarcasm>

  10. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Obviously we spend too much on gifted education— those kids will learn anyway, so why spend money teaching them!

    Instead, we should let kids test out of k-8. When they can pass the test, they get exempted from mandatory education laws and get a library card, free passes to museums, and free transit.

    Why pay to have them sitting in a school doing long division for the fifth time and slogging through a ‘reading group’ several grade levels beneath their reading level when, for much smaller per-student expense, they could be tearing up the nonfiction section, wandering an art museum, or even just playing outside?

    Surely those thousands of dollars wasted on keeping the already competent at desks could be spent on something else! As it is, we’re wasting their time and our money!

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Bill Leonard. I was being snarky.