Angus Deaton on Getting More People Into College
Two years ago, I reviewed Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s 2020 book, Deaths of Despair. My review was critical in the original meaning of that term: I pointed out its strengths and weaknesses. On Thursday, I had a chance to watch a Zoom talk he gave that was sponsored by a group at Stanford University. So I asked him about two of the items in the book on which I had challenged him and his co-author. On one, we didn’t come to any kind of result.
On the other, we did, or at least I thought we did.
Here’s what I had written on this latter issue in my review:
I wish they had addressed this educational “rat race” in more detail. My Econlog blogging colleague Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, argues in his 2018 book The Case Against Education that a huge amount of the value of higher education is for people to signal to potential employers that they can finish a major project and be appropriately docile. To the extent he is right, government subsidies to higher education make many jobs even more off‐limits to high school graduates. Yet, Case and Deaton do not cite Caplan’s work. Moreover, in their final chapter on what to do, they go the exact wrong way, writing, “Perhaps it is time to up our game to make college the norm?” That policy would further narrow the range of jobs available to nongraduates, making them even worse off.
Wanting to keep my question short, I asked an abbreviated version of the above. He answered and we went back and forth.
Here’s our correspondence that followed, starting Thursday night and going through Friday morning.
My email to Angus:
Dear Angus (if I may),
I’m the person who asked the first questions today. The one I’m interested in examining further is about the quote on p. 257 where you and Anne Case write, “perhaps it is time to up our game to make college the norm?”
In your response, you said that you agreed with my critique that this would raise the bar for jobs that really don’t depend on college-acquired skills. You also said that you had talked to CEOs and are pleased that they are now rethinking the requirement for an undergraduate degree. I was pleased by that too.
One of the rules that Ivan has set for these talks is the Chatham House rule. So in line with that, I’m asking your permission to quote your statement that you agree that making college the norm could make things worse and that it’s good for companies to move in the opposite direction. Do I have your permission to write that in a blog post?
David R. Henderson
I looked again at what we said which is as you quote. Though I would emphasize the question mark which is important here. We are raising the question, not advocating it.
I don’t know what would happen. We got universal primary and (almost) universal secondary education without raising the bar (much), so maybe that would happen with college too. But I agree that it is entirely possible that the bar would be raised. As the rest of the section of the book explains, there are many possibilities. So please don’t quote me as saying that I think that is the only possibility.
Professor Sir Angus Deaton, FBA HonFRSE
I promised to quote his whole email above and he approved.
I do fear that most readers will, as I did, take the statement I quoted as advocacy. The “perhaps” and the question mark will not, I think, convince many readers that he and Case don’t favor upping “our game to make college the norm.”
But I am pleased that he doesn’t want readers to take from this quote the idea that college should be the norm.
Here’s my bio of Angus in David R. Henderson, ed. The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.