Americans are dumb…

… until they spend 10 years on the job market (pdf). Improvement in literacy (in the broad sense of the term) is most pronounced between 25-35 year olds and 35-45 year olds. This is to say the jump (or lack there of) in literacy between the college-graduate-aged cohort (25-35 year olds) and the high-school-graduate-aged cohort (16-25 year olds) is much less than the improvement later on in people’s careers ((I saw a seminar yesterday in which it was suggested this isn’t a so-called cohort effect, i.e. the older folks didn’t get better educations.)). Doesn’t say much for the impact of college, does it.

Also, American adults actually catch up to adults in other countries in literacy scores. Here’s the US ranking (out of 19 countries) in the three types of literacy test by age groups ((see page 16 in Sum/Kirsch/Taggart 2002, linked above)):

Given Americans go to college at much higher rates than those in other countries (at least this was true when these literacy tests where administered), this is even more evidence for the signaling theory of higher education or it at least takes the wind out of the sails of the idea that colleges are good at creating human capital.

The catch-up effect suggests Americans are learning things on the job they should have learned in high school. Because we end up high in the rankings, though, this is more than just catch up. It seems there’s something about the American labor market that makes it especially good at producing human capital.

5 thoughts on “Americans are dumb…”

  1. The presenter yesterday seemed pretty convinced these weren’t cohort effects… I can’t remember why and I’m too lazy to look it up. :-)

  2. Hey, I learned lots of stuff in high school. A couple of things were even on the curriculum.

    I’m a little frustrated with the labor market for my field. The only education most employers will respect is work experience. This makes it very difficult to break into the field.

    I’m not sure how an academic institution can keep up with certain fields, though. In web development, for example, standards can be introduced, practiced, and become obsolete inside of four years. I don’t know how you can teach around that cycle in a way that your students would be desirable to employers after graduation. Employers would much rather try to poach an existing worker from another employer, even at a high premium.

  3. Something just struck me as funny…

    Are you (they) making the case that a highly subsidized institution like, I dunno, say, UCLA, or UC Davis, doesn’t improve educational outcomes? And that tremendous amounts of scarce state resources fund the equivalent of the visa stamp in a passport?

  4. She (the presenter) actually was focused on the jump from hs to young career… “See college works!” was her refrain. Prof. Clark pointed out in the seminar that he’d like to see the whole relationship between age and literacy to see if this wasn’t just a learning on the job effect… You won’t believe this but Clark is quite the contrarian in seminars.

    Anyway, being a good student, I went and looked for the career effect… and found it. I, in contrast to the presenter, am pointing out the later career jump is higher and so the college effect is tenuous. This says one of two things: college doesn’t teach nothin or college teaches you the foundation for the real learning that takes place in the work force.

    Even if its the former, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t subsidize universities like the esteemed one i’m sitting in. Universities produce lots of positive externalities via their research activities. We just invite the undergrads to come to town so they can bask in our glow.

    Also, I believe colleges greatest effect on undergrads is social. They meet mates here, they meet lifetime friends and business colleagues. They also learn how to interact with and/or manipulate other intelligent people. The literacy tests won’t pick up these effects of college.

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