Friday, July 10, 2015

Scott Walker didn’t finish college. Would that make him a bad president?

Nope. Our research shows college degrees don’t matter in politics

Next week, Scott Walker is expected to announce that he’s running for president. When he does, he’ll give voters a decision many have never faced in their lifetimes: should you vote for someone without a college degree for President of the United States?

These days it’s rare for someone without a college diploma to get picked for an internship, let alone stand for the highest office in the country. Walker’s opponents have sparkling resumes from college and beyond: Jeb Bush graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Marco Rubio has an honors law degree, Ted Cruz went to Princeton and then Harvard Law School, Hillary Clinton’s law degree is from Yale.

Walker’s last degree, on the other hand, came from Delavan-Darien High School. Throughout his career, Walker’s opponents have often pounced on this aspect of his biography. In February, Howard Dean called Walker “unknowledgeable” and questioned, “How well-educated is this guy?” In May, John Morgan—an influential Democratic campaign donor—put the case against Walker even more bluntly: “We just cannot have a dumb shit as president.”

As the campaign wears on, voters are going to hear a lot more about the fact that Walker didn’t finish college. Should they care?

We recently completed the largest study to look directly at this question—does having a college degree matter for politicians?—and the answer is, we don’t think so. (You can download the study here.)

IT’S EASY TO understand why so many pundits assume that candidates without college degrees are less qualified. In the general public, college is an important commodity, and people with college degrees tend to earn higher incomes and participate in civic life more.

But when it comes to holding office—which requires skills that aren’t taught in a college classroom—a college degree isn’t a guarantee that a candidate knows what he or she is doing. And the leaders who make it into office despite not having a college diploma tend to do just fine. When we examined hard data on how politicians with and without college degrees actually perform in office, on average, we didn’t find any real differences between leaders who finished college and leaders who didn’t.

Our research relied on several large datasets on the educational backgrounds of politicians. Most of our analysis focused on a dataset with information about every national executive in the world who served between 1875 and 2004. We’ve also looked at data on the members of Congress who served from 1901 to 1996 (there was only one US President without a college degree during that time) and data from Brazil, where the national government conducts one of the world’s best anti-corruption audits.

In our research, we looked at outcomes that most voters care about: economic growth, unemployment, inflation, how often major labor strikes happen, how often the country initiates a new military conflict, economic inequality, and so on. Obviously, politicians can’t control all of these things. But if leaders with college degrees really are better, then countries with college-educated national executives should tend to perform better on some of these measures.

But they don’t. Other things equal, countries with college-educated leaders and countries led by politicians who didn’t finish college have similar rates of economic growth, similar unemployment rates, similar inflation rates, similar numbers of wars and major work stoppages, and similar levels of income inequality. When it comes to major social outcomes that voters care about, it just doesn’t seem to matter whether a country’s national executive has a college diploma.

The same was true when we looked at an innovative anti-corruption program in Brazil. Every year since 2003, an anti-corruption office in Brazil’s federal government has randomly selected 250 municipalities and extensively audited how they spend their money. We looked at the data, and corruption appears to be just as common in cities run by college-educated mayors as it is in cities whose mayors didn’t finish college.

Even in the US Congress, a college diploma doesn’t seem to signify anything special. Throughout the 20th century, members of Congress who didn’t have college degrees introduced just as many successful bills as their colleagues who had college diplomas. They didn’t suffer with voters, either: they won just as many votes on average, and were just as likely to get reelected. Despite our best efforts, our research didn’t turn up any performance measure that favored college-educated legislators. Once someone without a college degree gets to Congress, they tend to do just fine.

And that's probably the key to understanding why politicians without college degrees tend to perform just as well: even without a college degree, these are people who wound up as leaders. By definition, they have more in common with a college dropout like Bill Gates than a typical college dropout. Getting into public office in most places is a gauntlet—especially here in the US—and the only people who usually make it through are brilliant workaholics who can stomach a lot of mud.

In the general public, people with college degrees tend to be more skilled and tend to make more money, but political candidates aren’t the general public. They’re a vetted, screened, battered subset of the rest of us. Among the people who make it into that pool, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a college degree. You’ve proven yourself in other ways.

SCOTT WALKER IS a case in point. He enrolled at Marquette University in 1986. He was actively involved in campus politics, and he made okay grades. During his junior year, he lost a race for student body president and he got a job offer from the American Red Cross, so he left Marquette (“in good standing,” his supporters often note). He planned to go back and complete his degree, but he got sucked into a whirlwind political career, and he never found the time to finish up.

If Walker had stuck around and finished his college degree, would he be a different governor today? A different presidential candidate? Would another year of schooling have made him better at winning elections or passing laws? Would two more semesters have changed his political outlook? Probably not.

Most politicians don’t learn what they know about governing in college. They learn how to lead the way most people really learn to do their jobs: by doing their jobs. College teaches students a lot, but holding office is a massively-specialized occupation, and no one learns how to do it by taking classes. They learn how to do it by doing it.

This isn’t to say that college is worthless. As university professors, we get to see first-hand how a high-quality college education can change someone’s life.  But we don’t kid ourselves that our students are ready to be President the minute they graduate—or that they’re the only people in the country who are qualified to hold office.

In many ways, Scott Walker’s college experience isn’t all that remarkable. Lots of successful people left college early to start their careers: Harry Truman, Karl Rove, Mark Zuckerberg. If you met someone at a party who told you he left college a year early, his career took off in a major way, and he just never found the time to finish up, you probably wouldn’t think much of it. We all know there’s a lot more to a person than whether they have a fancy diploma hanging on their wall.

The same is true for politicians. When voters hear that Scott Walker—or any politician—didn’t finish college, they probably shouldn’t make too much of it. They should listen to the person’s ideas, they should look at the person’s track record, but they shouldn’t get too hung up on the college part.

Should you vote for someone without a college degree for President of the United States? If you think they’re the best candidate, why wouldn’t you?


'Free' Money Doesn't Make College More Affordable

Over the weekend, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) penned a Wall Street Journal opinion piece in which he claims that college is not too expensive — because of all kinds of free money from the government. Tell that to middle-class families paying the full bill.

Alexander discusses some costs of attending college in modern America, and, while he admits that school can set you back a few bucks, he says not only are costs not as bad as advertised but there are numerous ways to pay for most of them.

“Public two year colleges … are free or nearly free for low-income students,” Alexander writes, and “community college tuition and fees average $3,300 per year.” Coincidently (or not), the average Pell Grant is also $3,300, though it can be as high as $5,775, depending on need. Even better, students can get 12 semesters of them, and since a grant needn’t be repaid, recipients are relieved of the need to find summer employment.

Using the University of Tennessee at Knoxville as an example of four-year schools, Alexander says tuition and fees average about $11,800 per year. Besides Pell Grants, students in Tennessee and some other states also have access to Hope Scholarships. For each of the first two years, the recipient gets $3,500, then $4,500 for years three and four. He says other “[s]tates run a variety of similar programs — $11.2 billion in financial aid in 2013, 85% in the form of scholarships.” Scholarships needn’t be repaid either.

Alexander extolls the virtue of government subsidies, but, if necessary, the student also has access to loans secured by the government. The College Board estimates that students from four-year schools will have an average of $27,000 in debt when they graduate, about the same as a new car loan.

Nationally, the current outstanding total of these loans is $1.2 trillion.

In closing, Alexander offers “five steps … to make it easier for students to finance their college education:”

“Allow students to use Pell grants year-round…”

“Simplify the confusing 108-question federal student-aid application…”

Allow colleges to counsel students against too much borrowing.
“Require colleges to share in the risk of lending to students…”

Cut federal red tape that costs millions.

But recently published research doesn’t support Alexander’s love of federal college subsidies to students. In fact, according to David Lucca and Karen Shen of the New York Fed and Taylor Nadauld of Brigham Young University, tuition goes up 65 cents for every dollar of new loans or grants. “[W]hile one would expect student aid expansion to benefit recipients,” the pair say, “the subsidized loan expansion could [be] to their detriment, on net, because of the sizable and offsetting tuition effect.”

The study supports the Bennett Hypothesis, offered by William Bennett, education secretary under Ronald Reagan. He surmised that more government student aid meant universities could “blithely” raise tuition rates without enrollment suffering. Soaring student debt rather proves the point.

According to the Washington Examiner, researchers measured “differences in tuition changes at schools that had more or fewer students [taking advantage of increased] student loans, using data from the Department of Education. Not only did tuitions rise when Congress increased aid availability, but for-profit colleges saw their stocks jump.”

And if you think it’s expensive now, wait until Barack Obama makes it free.

Weighing in with his three-essay series in 2008 on the economics of college, economist Thomas Sowell explained why the cost of college tuition is so high.

“There are two basic reasons,” Sowell said. “The first is that people will pay what the colleges charge. The second is that there is little incentive for colleges to reduce the tuition they charge.”

Sowell discussed the notion of cost: “The inadequacy of resources to produce everything that everyone wants is the fundamental fact of life in every economy. … This means that the real cost of anything consists of all the other things that could have been produced with those same resources.”

Universities ignore the fact that, by constantly raising tuition and thus taking billions every year from the economy, they are simply reallocating resources that perhaps could be used more effectively than a four-year degree in gender studies. And because students can always get the funds to pay for tuition, colleges will always raise it.

As Sowell notes, “In a normal market situation, each competing enterprise has an incentive to lower prices if that would attract business away from competitors and increase its profits.”

But college isn’t the normal world. In fact, some who have tried to lower tuition have been “advised” against it by the American Association of University Professors because their accreditation might be revoked.

Higher education is a very high-stakes business, and, while academics may have the reputation of being soft, they won’t take cutting student aid without a fight. Today it’s more about building magnificent temples to academia and creating world-renowned reputations than passing on knowledge.


Unions Love This New Version of No Child Left Behind. That Should Worry Conservatives

The Senate has begun floor consideration of a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

This congress has the opportunity to consider conservative policy reforms that would genuinely restore state and local control of education, yet the proposal as it currently stands has a long way to go before it could be considered to be on a path toward achieving that goal.

Notably, the version that made its way out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee has received praise from the National Education Association, which said it “has a lot of things going for it,” and the American Federation of Teachers, although both groups would like to see the proposal move further left.

The AFT applauded the bill for “maintaining the formula that concentrates funding for poor children, by not including portability or block grants, and by keeping maintenance-of-effort requirements.”

Translation: Union special interest groups like the proposal because it keeps spending high, doesn’t include school choice options and maintains super-sized federal intervention in education.

But there is room for improvement. As the legislative process proceeds over the next few days (the House will also consider its reauthorization proposal), members of Congress have the opportunity to advance provisions that would restore state and local control of education and empower parents. Those provisions include:

The Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (APLUS) proposal would allow states to completely opt-out of all of the programs that fall under No Child Left Behind. States could then use their funds for any education purpose authorized under state law. APLUS—allowing states to completely exit No Child Left Behind—has long been a conservative priority.

Over 100 members of the House, including 4 sitting members of the Education and the Workforce Committee, have co-sponsored APLUS over the past few years. A-PLUS would empower states to reclaim responsibility for how taxpayer dollars are spent, moving the decision-making process close to local school leaders and parents. It would also place the responsibility for educational improvement with states and schools, which have the strongest incentive to get policymaking right.

Title I portability. Title I funding makes up the bulk of spending under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The roughly $14.5 billion is intended to improve educational outcomes for children from low-income families, but as researcher Susan Aud has found, “complicated, disregarded guidelines result in wide variation in the way that funds are distributed and often result in little or no relationship between a district’s demo­graphics and the amount of money received.”

To improve Title I for the disadvantaged children it was designed to help, states should be given the option to make Title I dollars portable, following a child to a public, charter or private school of choice.

Reducing program count. Any reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should reduce program count. The law has morphed significantly from its original 31 pages authorizing spending for disadvantaged school districts, to a more than 600-page bill with thousands of pages of regulations and dozens of competitive grant programs that burden states and interfere with local school policy. Competitive grant programs should be eliminated, and spending reduced commensurately.

On a final note, proponents of the current reauthorization proposal often suggest that it ends Common Core. It does not.

The proposal adds yet another prohibition on the secretary of Education mandating or incentivizing Common Core, but prohibitions already exist in three federal laws, making another prohibition redundant and largely meaningless.

Moreover, it is up to states—governors and legislatures—to exit Common Core. The onus for withdrawing from Common Core falls to state leaders, and indeed, they should fully exit the national standards and tests in order to reclaim control over the content taught in their states.

But those considering the impact of an additional prohibition against Common Core in Elementary and Secondary Education Act should be aware that it would do nothing to untangle states from the effort; that must be done by states.


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