Order Code RL33238
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
The Benefits of Education
December 29, 2005
Specialist in Labor Economics
Domestic Social Policy Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The Benefits of Education
In a world of limited resources where policymakers must make tradeoffs among
numerous government activities, sound decision-making entails knowing not only the
benefits to society that result from schooling but also their value compared to other
public investments. Social returns to investment in education are believed to include
an informed and engaged citizenry, but how is this rather vague benefit to be
conceptualized and assessed? Recent concern about globalization’s impact on U.S.
competitiveness has brought to the fore another perceived social benefit of the
educational system, namely, its provision of highly qualified workers who enable the
nation to sustain its rate of economic growth. The former is an example of a nonmonetary public benefit and the latter of a monetary public benefit, neither of which
individuals ordinarily consider when choosing how much schooling to undertake.
Because they are not rewarded for the positive effects thought to spill over from
themselves to others as a result of their pursuing additional schooling, individuals are
likely to underinvest in education. The existence of such spillover benefits (i.e.,
human capital externalities) is a key justification for government support and
promotion of education that may thereby move society toward an optimal level of
But how can it be shown that education per se causes human capital
externalities rather than other factors, some of which are not readily observable? For
example, does the pay gap between college and high school graduates reflect
differences between the two in productivity due to acquired knowledge or due to
innate ability? Is voter turnout higher among the more educated because civics was
part of their school curriculum or because their parents raised them to take seriously
public affairs? Answers to these questions would indicate whether, and to what
extent, education is a worthwhile investment for both individuals and society.
A voluminous literature on the private monetary return to education has
developed over the last 40 years, with advances in statistical techniques applied to
estimation of the earnings premium caused by schooling as recently as the 1990s.
Education’s private pecuniary rate of return is estimated to range from about 6% to
11%, which suggests that investing in formal education is a comparatively sound
financial decision for individuals. Schooling seems even more worthwhile to
individuals in light of its non-monetary returns (e.g., own health), although values are
rarely developed for this type of benefit.
Researchers much more recently have focused on determining whether formal
education causes public benefits. While the number of such empirical studies is
increasing, estimates of the size of human capital externalities remain scarce due to
the daunting analytical task of precisely measuring the monetary and non-monetary
benefits that spill over from highly educated persons to other members of society.
The results produced thus far are inconsistent, but they do offer evidence of the
existence of human capital externalities — that is, government support for education
This report will not be updated.
Rationales for Government Support and Promotion of Education . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
The Public Benefits of Education . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Civic Participation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Crime . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Economic Growth . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
The Private Benefits of Education . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Own Health . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Child Well-Being . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Earnings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Concluding Remarks . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
The Benefits of Education
Federal spending on elementary, secondary (K-12) and postsecondary education
exceeded $170 billion in FY2003.1 This figure excludes the sizeable tax revenue that
the federal government foregoes to encourage individuals to pursue additional
schooling (principally postsecondary) and to support educational institutions. In
FY2005, federal tax expenditures on education were estimated to be some $20
billion.2 State spending on K-12 and postsecondary education dwarfs both these
sums: in school year 2001-2002, states spent about $435 billion on K-12 education;
in school year 2000-2001, public degree-granting institutions across the nation spent
almost $137 billion.3
In a world of limited resources where policymakers must make tradeoffs among
numerous government activities, sound decision-making entails knowing not only the
full range of benefits to society that result from schooling but also their value
compared to other public investments. Social returns to educational investment have
long been thought to include an informed and engaged citizenry, but how is this
rather vague benefit to be conceptualized and assessed? Concern about the ability
of the United States to maintain its competitive position in an increasingly global
marketplace has brought to the fore another perceived social benefit of the
educational system: its provision of well-trained workers who enable a country to
sustain its rate of economic (income) growth. A high-quality workforce also might
dampen the cost of publicly financed remedies to potential displacement from
international competition (e.g., the Trade Adjustment Assistance program and
employment services under the Workforce Investment Act.)
William C. Sonnenberg, Federal Support for Education FY1980 to FY2003 (Washington:
National Center for Education Statistics, 2004). Note: The figure approximates many
federal agencies’ support for K-12 and higher education; research at educational institutions;
and libraries, museums, and cultural activities. More specifically, it covers on-budget
support from congressional appropriations (e.g., the Education Department’s college student
financial aid and the Agriculture Department’s child nutrition programs); off-budget support
(i.e., the loan volume in the Federal Direct Student Loan program); and non-federal funds
generated by federal legislation (e.g., Federal Family Education Loans and Perkins Loans).
U.S. Joint Committee on Taxation, Estimates of Federal Tax Expenditures for Fiscal Years
2005-2009, JCS-1-05 (Washington: GPO, 2005). Note: The figure includes such tax
provisions as the Hope Scholarship and Lifetime Learning Credits, the deduction for
charitable contributions to educational institutions, the exclusion of scholarship and
fellowship income, the parental personal exemption for students age 19 to 23, and the
exclusion of interest on state and local government bonds for private nonprofit and qualified
public educational facilities.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), The
NCES Common Core Data, National Public Education Financial Survey; and Integrated
Postsecondary Education Data System, Finance Survey.
The acquisition of education thus is perceived as increasingly important to the
labor market success of individuals, which is the main private return to schooling.
Seemingly now more than ever, the greater the knowledge people embody (i.e., their
human capital), the better able they are to adapt to economic change (e.g.,
technological innovations) and thereby to maintain their comparatively high earnings
with little interruption from unemployment during their working lives.
But how can it be demonstrated that education per se causes public and private
benefits rather than other factors, some of which are not readily observable? For
example, does the pay gap between college and high school graduates reflect
differences between the two in productivity due to acquired knowledge or due to
innate intelligence? Is civic participation higher among more educated persons
because its importance is taught in school or because their parents raised them to take
political and community affairs seriously? Answers to these questions would
indicate whether, and to what extent, education is a worthwhile investment for both
individuals and society.
This report provides an overview of the public and private benefits of education.
Because it approaches education as an investment, the report does not address the
consumption benefits of schooling.4 It focuses on those benefits for which empirical
research has examined the causal effects of education rather than studies that have
established an association (correlation) between schooling and other outcomes. It
should be noted at the outset that the variable this literature usually employs to
represent learning is formal education as opposed to employer-provided on-the-job
training or informal learning in the workplace for example.
Rationales for Government Support
and Promotion of Education
Paternalistic-type reasons, although not usually used by economists, are often
used in popular discussions for providing education. Egalitarian arguments are
also often used to justify government intervention. Imperfections in lending and
insurance markets (i.e., borrowing constraints and uninsurable risk) and
imperfect competition in labour markets can also warrant government
involvement. And ... subsidizing education can efficiently counteract the
distortions in human capital investment decisions caused by income taxation.5
Perhaps the most widely known economic justification for public involvement
in education is that the total benefits from learning exceed those which accrue solely
to the individual making the investment. People are likely to invest in education at
less than socially optimum levels because they are not rewarded for, and therefore do
not typically take into account, the positive effects thought to spill over from
These include such social benefits as community members’ enjoyment of local high school
and college athletic events, and such individual benefits as participation in college alumni
Philip A. Trostel, “Should Education be Publicly Provided?”, Bulletin of Economic
Research, vol. 54, no. 4 (2002), p. 374.
themselves to others as a result of their schooling decisions. The existence of
spillover benefits from private educational investment (i.e., human capital
externalities) suggests that government intervention in education can move society
toward an optimal (efficient) result.
A nascent debate has developed in the empirical literature about the size of
human capital externalities. To date, the disagreement is confined to one presumed
external benefit, namely, the contribution of human capital to economic growth.
(This matter is addressed directly later in the report.)
Those empirical studies of the education-growth nexus that find individuals are
by far the major beneficiaries of their schooling decisions nonetheless support the
conclusion that public expenditures on education are not wasted, that is, the social
rate of return is positive (albeit perhaps small).6 Put another way, formal education
does enhance productivity rather than years of schooling merely signaling to potential
employers a person’s inherent characteristics (e.g., motivation). Even if educational
attainment functions primarily as a signal, however, spending still would not be
socially wasteful to the extent that possession of a degree permits employers to better
screen workers for jobs (i.e., people are more appropriately matched with jobs,
thereby enhancing productivity and economic growth).7 For these among other
reasons, signaling appears to have “lost favor among economists as a useful tool for
analyzing educational choices or for policy analysis.”8
The Public Benefits of Education
The public benefits of education can be of a monetary nature, such as raising
national income and the earnings of less-educated members of society. They also can
be of a non-monetary nature. These non-pecuniary benefits are more vague and less
amenable to quantification than monetary returns. If measurement difficulties lead
researchers to omit non-monetary transfers from more educated individuals to others,
the consequences of education for society will be understated.
Robert Topel, “The Private and Social Values of Education,” Education and Economic
Development: Proceedings of a Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland Research Conference,
Nov. 18-19, 2004. (Hereafter cited as Topel, The Private and Social Values of Education.)
Maria E. Menon, “An Evaluation of Four Decades of Rate of Return Analysis in Higher
Education Policy Making: Weaknesses and Future Prospects,” Higher Education Policy,
vol. 16 (2003). (Hereafter cited as Menon, An Evaluation of Four Decades of RoR Analysis
in Higher Education Policy Marking.) Jonathan Temple, “Growth Effects of Education and
Social Capital in the OECD Countries,” OECD Economic Studies, no. 33 (2001). (Hereafter
cited as Temple, Growth Effects of Education and Social Capital in the OECD Countries.)
Topel, The Private and Social Values of Education, p. 49.
The development and stability of democratic societies is perhaps one of the most
commonly asserted spillover effects of education. Schools in the United States teach
students about the functions of government and make them aware of political,
community, and other social issues. Schools also attempt to instill in their charges
democratic values and behaviors (e.g., support for free speech and tolerance of
others). Adults who have accumulated more years of education are presumed able
to more readily and intelligently assess competing claims in political campaign
literature and evaluate complex ballot initiatives. As a consequence, education is
purported to enhance the quantity and quality of civic engagement.
Yet, there may be factors (individual-, family-, and community-specific) that
simultaneously influence educational attainment and civic behaviors. If analyses do
not take into account such characteristics — for which there may not be readily
observable variables in data sets — correlation could be misinterpreted for causality
and the public return to schooling could be overstated. In the 1990s, studies began
utilizing methodologies thought to better distinguish the unique effects of education
on civic participation and on other positive externalities.9
The results of one such analysis confirm that additional secondary and
postsecondary education has a large, statistically significant impact on voting
behavior.10 For example, another year of high school attendance increases the
likelihood of voting in a presidential election by almost 7 percentage points; college
entrance increases the likelihood of registering to vote by some 22 percentage points.
Education is estimated to significantly raise the quality of civic knowledge, as well,
with quality measured by frequency of newspaper reading.
Another study similarly finds that more schooling substantially and significantly
boosts voter turnout. High school graduation is estimated to raise the probability of
voting by 29-34 percentage points.11 This suggests that had high school completion
among those at least 25 years old not risen by 36 percentage points between 1964 and
A small body of literature focuses on twins to take advantage of their shared characteristics
(e.g., genetic endowment and family environment). Some analysts believe that utilizing
twins mitigates the upward bias in estimated returns to education found in studies of
unrelated individuals that fail to take into account unobservable traits.
The instrumental variable (IV) technique produces a consistent estimate in situations where
an independent variable (e.g., educational attainment) is correlated with unobservable
characteristics (e.g., the importance that parents place on civic responsibilities) that also
affect the return to education (e.g., civic participation). Expressed differently, the IV
method removes from the return to education that portion which is due to unmeasurable
factors associated with both educational attainment and the return to education.
Thomas S. Dee, “Are There Civic Returns to Education?”, Journal of Public Economics,
vol. 88 (2004).
Kevin Milligan, Enrico Moretti, and Philip Oreopoulos, “Does Education Improve
Citizenship? Evidence from the United States and the United Kingdom,” Journal of Public
Economics, vol. 88 (2004).
2000, voter turnout in the 2000 election would have been 10-12 percentage points
lower than it was (all else being equal). Education also appears to enhance the
quality of civic involvement: high school graduates more often attend political and
community meetings, volunteer in their communities, and follow media reports about
public affairs compared to individuals with fewer years of education.
As schools attempt to instill the shared values and rules of society, they may
increase the emotional and mental costs to an individual of engaging in unethical or
illegal activities. Teachers supervise youngsters during the school day, as well,
thereby making them less available for other activities (e.g., juvenile delinquency).
More years of schooling also generally raise students’ future wage rates, which
increases the reward of legitimate work and the opportunity cost of time spent
incarcerated. Education is thought to reduce crime through these among other
According to one analysis, additional schooling does appear to significantly curb
criminal activity.12 It finds that a one-year increase in schooling lowers the likelihood
of imprisonment by 0.1 percentage points for white males and 0.4 percentage points
for black males. The effect of education on reducing the probability of incarceration
seems strongest among those who complete high school. In addition, a one-year
increase in schooling is estimated to lower, by 30%, the probability that males will
be arrested for such violent crimes as murder and assault. Similarly, the likelihood
of committing such property crimes as motor vehicle theft and arson falls by 20% and
The researchers further approximate the social savings to be gained from
education’s impact on criminal activities. A 1% increase in males’ high school
graduation rate could yield savings to society totaling $1.4 billion per year, or about
$1,170-$2,100 annually per additional male high school graduate.13 The authors
conclude that the social benefits per additional graduate, which are reaped each year
over their lives, compare favorably with the direct cost per student of one year of
Lance Lochner and Enrico Moretti, “The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from
Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports,” The American Economic Review, vol. 94, no. 1
Ibid. Note: The social savings result from an estimated 94,310 fewer violent (murder,
rape, robbery, and assault) and property (burglary, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft, and
arson) crimes in a year. The savings are a combination of victim costs (i.e., productivity and
wage losses, medical costs, and reduced quality of life) and incarceration costs.
Schools, through their teaching and research functions, are thought to promote
economic growth and thereby raise living standards.14 Teachers transmit knowledge
to each new generation of students, which
facilitates their subsequent understanding and adoption of better
ways of doing things in the workplace (e.g., more efficient
production methods, inventory management, and managerial
prepares them to create and innovate while employed in the private
Faculty members and their research assistants also develop new applications of
knowledge (e.g., scientific and technological advances) that largely are implemented
outside the education industry where they too may increase the rate at which the
economy is able to expand. In addition, as they interact in workplaces and
communities with highly educated individuals, others are thought to formally or
informally learn from them. Through these various channels, a nation’s or
neighborhood’s productivity or “labor quality,” and hence per-person income or
earnings, is posited to rise beyond the individual increase in productivity.15
Many of the studies that investigate variations across countries in schooling and
growth estimate that a nation’s initial stock of human capital (e.g., average years of
schooling) significantly increases the national income level (i.e., per capita gross
domestic product). There is some evidence that productivity and economic growth
is achieved by education’s enabling countries to adopt imported technologies, thereby
allowing less developed nations to catch-up with more developed nations. Research
also suggests that postsecondary education in particular is important to continued
growth in more developed nations, perhaps because workers must possess some
minimum quality level to utilize or develop technological advances.
These cross-country studies do not find that increases in educational attainment
cause per-person income to grow beyond private returns, however. This result runs
counter to conventional wisdom, which holds that the rate at which highly qualified
persons are supplied to the labor market must increase for a nation’s growth rate to
Economic growth achieved through increases in efficiency (i.e., output per hour worked
or per worker) raises national living standards if, as theorized, greater productivity results
in higher individual earnings. For more information see CRS Report RL32987, Long-Term
Growth of the U.S. Economy: Significance, Determinants, and Policy, by Craig K. Elwell.
Some growth accounting models only take into account the direct or private monetary
return to human capital investment. For example, if individual productivity increases by
10% due to an additional year of education, then average productivity across the nation will
rise by 10% due to the average schooling increase. These individual effects on economic
growth are discussed later in this report in terms of the private return to schooling. Other
models allow for the possibility of human capital externalities, that is, the average
productivity increase across all workers in the prior example might exceed 10%. These
models and external effects are the subject of the above discussion.
continue rising over time. Many analysts question the accuracy of this
counterintuitive finding, primarily because of measurement error in international
databases on education that worsens when change in schooling level over time is the
variable of interest.16 The macro-growth literature also may confuse additional
education leading to income growth with higher incomes leading to more schooling
(i.e., reverse causality). The samples of nations utilized may include unrepresentative
outliers that bias the results as well.17 Moreover, in developing nations particularly,
most of the increase in highly educated labor has found employment in such
industries as government; retail trade; and business, personal, and other services —
where good output measures are lacking in national income and product accounts.18
Studies that take this approach also generally omit such country-specific
institutional characteristics as regulatory structures and political systems, for
example. These among other omitted factors (e.g., the quality of a nation’s
educational system) presumably cause public rates of return to vary by country and
within a country over time as the characteristics themselves change.19 Accordingly,
the very design of cross-country studies makes them less useful to policymakers than
analyses of their own or similar nations. Thus, for example, an analysis of member
countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
estimates that increases in persons with postsecondary education in particular have
a significant and positive effect on economic growth.20 Another study finds that the
significant, positive impact of human capital on OECD nations’ adoption of
technology from abroad increases the higher the level of schooling in these developed
countries.21 Research suggests, however, that in OECD nations education policies
intended to promote increases in the rate of economic growth will have small effects
compared to the countries’ current growth rates.22 While education does appear to
contribute to economic growth in developed nations, it probably should not be
viewed as a panacea.
Alan B. Krueger and Mikael Lindahl, “Education for Growth: Why and For Whom?”
Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 39 (Dec. 2001); and OECD, The Well-being of
Nations: The Role of Human and Social Capital (2001).
Jonathan Temple, “A Positive Effect of Human Capital on Growth,” Economic Letters,
vol. 65 (1999).
Zvi Griliches, “Education, Human Capital, and Growth: A Personal Perspective,” Journal
of Labor Economics, vol. 15, no. 1 (Jan. 1997).
For more information about the influence of school quality in a cross-country context see
Robert J. Barro, “Human Capital and Growth,” American Economic Review, vol. 91, no. 2
(2001); and Eric A. Hanushek and Dongwook Kim,” Schooling, Labor Force Quality, and
the Growth of Nations,” American Economic Review, vol. 90, no. 5 (2000).
Norman Gemmell, “Evaluating the Impacts of Human Capital Stocks and Accumulation
on Economic Growth: Some New Evidence,” Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics,
vol. 58, no. 1 (1996).
Hans-Jurgen Engelbrecht, “Human Capital and Economic Growth: Cross-Section
Evidence for OECD Countries,” The Economic Record, vol. 79, special issue (June 2005),
Temple, Growth Effects of Education and Social Capital in the OECD Countries.
An alternative approach that focuses on geographic areas within the United
States avoids the above-mentioned shortcomings of cross-country studies. It
similarly posits that, in the presence of externalities, a greater stock of human capital
(i.e., higher average schooling) in an area will cause area income from jobs (i.e.,
average wages) to rise above the earnings gains accorded more education persons
(i.e., the private return to education).
One analysis utilizes U.S. states as the labor market area of interest. It estimates
modest, imprecise effects of variations in state average schooling levels on state
average wages, after controlling for individual effects. Nonetheless, the authors note
that the social rate of return — which they estimate ranges from 1% to 3% — is still
of sufficient size “to justify significant public subsidies for education.”23 As the
study is confined to white males aged 40-49, secondary education, and states, other
analyses that cover different demographic groups, educational levels, and geographic
areas may yield more substantial social returns.
Indeed, another study finds that others do benefit to a greater degree from
employment in metropolitan areas with large shares of workers having postsecondary
education. Specifically, a one percentage point increase in a metropolitan area’s
share of workers with at least a college degree raises the earnings of high school
dropouts by 1.9%, high school graduates by 1.6%, persons with some college by
1.2%, and the earnings of college graduates themselves by 0.4% — beyond the
private return to education.24 These results imply that the attraction of collegeeducated workers is a worthwhile component of publicly funded economic
development programs for urban areas. (An increase in the proportion of collegeeducated persons at the national level is unlikely to yield such large social returns,
however, because the estimates reflect holding constant the college-educated share
of workers in all other metropolitan areas.)
Like the state-based study discussed above, this analysis also finds that increases
at the lower end of the educational distribution (i.e., a greater share of high school
graduates in a metro area) are unlikely to generate large positive externalities.
if human capital is expanded at higher levels of education, the benefits of the
spillover are in the form of technological progress and higher productivity. If
human capital is expanded at lower levels, the benefits are in the form of
reductions in crime and lower welfare participation.25
Daron Acemoglu and Joshua Angrist, “How Large are Human-Capital Externalities?
Evidence from Compulsory Schooling Laws,” NBER Macroeconomics Annual, vol. 15
(MA: The MIT Press, 2000), p. 48.
Enrico Moretti, “Estimating the Social Returns of Higher Education: Evidence from
Longitudinal and Repeated Cross-Sectional Data,” Journal of Econometrics, vol. 121
Ibid., p. 207.
The Private Benefits of Education
Some analysts consider transfers from an educated individual to anyone else to
be social benefits. Others categorize intra-family transfers (e.g., to children) as
private benefits. This report takes the latter approach. Researchers also differ in
their classification of benefits as monetary or non-monetary. Some regard an
individual’s compensation (earnings and benefits) to be the sole financial return to
education. Others include labor market advantages more often enjoyed by better paid
persons (e.g., less unemployment) as monetary benefits. This report adopts the latter
Better own health probably is the leading non-financial benefit of education to
individuals.26 Studies find a strong, positive association between years of schooling
and health status measured in various ways (e.g., self-reported health, mortality rates,
and physiological indicators of health).
Three, not mutually exclusive, explanations typically are offered for this direct
More educated persons are less likely to engage in unhealthy
behaviors, perhaps because they are better informed about health
matters. Their superior problem-solving skills may enable them to
better utilize the health care system as well.
Childhood illness may curtail years spent in school. Healthier
students may more readily add to their human capital and have more
years in which to reap the rewards of their additional schooling.
Future-oriented persons (i.e., those willing to defer rewards) are
more likely to invest in all types of human capital — both education
The first explanation suggests that more education causes better health. In the next
explanation causality runs in the opposite direction — from better health to more
education. The final explanation implies there are one or more unobserved factors
(e.g., genetic endowment) associated with schooling that actually determine health
status; if such variables are not accounted for, education’s role in the improvement
of health may be overstated.
The degree to which each explanation is correct has important implications for
policymakers. If a goal is having a healthier population in order to minimize
Medicare and Medicaid expenditures, for example, and causality largely runs from
health to education, then greater education spending would not be the most efficient
means to the goal’s realization.
Other private non-pecuniary benefits include more efficient household management (e.g.,
greater use of new technologies for the home among higher educated individuals) and
attainment of desired family size (e.g., level of educational attainment is directly related to
effective use of contraceptives).
Although they do not eliminate the possibility of reverse causality or the role of
unobserved factors, several analyses show that more schooling does exert an
independent and positive effect on health.27 One study finds that education
significantly improves the health outcomes of older workers (i.e., 51-61 year old
women and men).28 The effect of greater educational attainment on health outcomes
appears stronger among older women than men. Health status is measured by selfreported ratings of such abilities as climbing stairs, walking, and bathing. Another
analysis utilizes as health indicators the likelihood of having work-limiting
conditions and of requiring personal care. It suggests that males who extend high
school attendance by one year reduce their probability of incurring work-limiting
disabilities by 2.6 percentage points.29 An additional year of high school also lowers
the likelihood of subsequently requiring personal care by a statistically significant
0.67 percentage points. More education extends the life expectancy of adults,
according to a third study: another year of high school lowers their mortality rate by
4-6 percentage points.30
Not only does schooling level improve an individual’s own health, but it also
may improve child well-being through better health outcomes. A study of the causal
relationship between parental education and children’s health estimates that more
educated mothers give birth to healthier infants. Specifically, increased college
attendance among first-time mothers significantly reduces the incidence of both low
birth weight and premature delivery.31 This, in turn, implies large savings both for
families and society given the higher medical, educational, and other costs associated
with low-birth-weight youngsters.
In addition, greater parental education may enhance child well-being through
improved educational outcomes. An analysis finds that a one-year increase in
parental schooling significantly dampens the likelihood of a child repeating a grade
(by 2-7 percentage points).32 It also finds that more-educated parents improve their
children’s schooling outcomes by lowering the probability of dropping out of high
For a review of the literature see Michael Grossman and Robert Kaestner, “Effects of
Education and Health,” in Jere R. Behrman and Nevzer Stacey, eds., The Social Benefits of
Education, (MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1997).
Scott J. Adams, “Educational Attainment and Health: Evidence from a Sample of Older
Adults,” Education Economics, vol. 10, no. 1 (2002).
Jeremy Arkes, “Does Schooling Improve Adult Health?,” RAND Health, DRU-3051 (May
Adriana Lleras-Muney, “The Relationship between Education and Adult Mortality in the
United States,” The Review of Economic Studies, vol. 72, no. 250 (Jan. 2005).
Janet Currie and Enrico Moretti, “Mother’s Education and the Intergenerational
Transmission of Human Capital: Evidence from College Openings,” Quarterly Journal of
Economics, v. 118, no. 4 (Nov. 2003).
Philip Oreopoulos, Marianne E. Page, and Ann Huff Stevens, Does Human Capital
Transfer from Parent to Child? The Intergenerational Effects of Compulsory Schooling,
National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper no. 10164, Dec. 2003.
school (by 3-5 percentage points). Another study alternatively estimates that, after
controlling for intergenerational “ability bias” due to unobserved inherited
endowments and to marital sorting (i.e., more educated women tend to wed more
educated men), mother’s schooling has a negative but not quite statistically
significant influence on child educational attainment while father’s schooling has a
positive and significant impact.33
When individuals enter the labor market rather than continuing in school, it is
unlikely that they consider how their choices will affect the well-being of their
potential children. A college education may, for example, improve parenting skills
in the future or the kind of social network to which they can offer their children
access. Some policymakers similarly may not take an intergenerational perspective
when developing educational policy. If there is a public component to this private
benefit and it is not recognized, underinvestment in education over the long-run may
In the not-too-distant past, individuals who graduated from high school were
considered well-equipped to succeed in the labor market — that is, obtain
comparatively well-paid jobs that they could remain in for most of their work lives.
The situation appears to have changed over the last few decades when the pace of
economic change accelerated. The wage gap between less and more educated
workers widened as postsecondary education became a seemingly necessary
prerequisite to high-paid secure employment.34 Although people reportedly think it
no longer possible to obtain “lifetime jobs,” individuals with postsecondary
schooling are regarded as more likely to adjust to technological changes without
experiencing unemployment and to better rebound from displacement related to
international competition for example.35 Higher education thus appears to have
become more important to employment — if not job — security, and to earnings
stability over the course of a working life.
The labor market returns to education typically are manifested not only through
a greater probability of high earnings and low unemployment, but also through more
common employer provision of benefits (e.g., health insurance) and better working
conditions. But, the most studied labor market benefit of education is earnings.
According to human capital theory, individuals’ wages are based on their initial
productivity (e.g., ambition and innate ability), investments in their productivity (e.g.,
schooling and on-the-job training), and supply-demand conditions for persons with
Jere R. Behrman and Mark R. Rosenzweig, “Does Increasing Women’s Schooling Raise
the Schooling of the Next Generation?”, American Economic Review, vol. 92, no. 1 (2002).
Note: This study has been criticized for, among other things, its probably unrealistic
assumption that twins differ in terms of education but not in terms in other characteristics
or experiences that can affect the schooling level of their children.
CRS Report 95-1081, Education Matters: Earnings by Educational Attainment Over
Three Decades, by Linda Levine.
For more information see CRS Report RL32292, Offshoring (a.k.a. Offshore Outsourcing)
and Job Insecurity Among U.S. Workers, by Linda Levine.
comparable skills and experience. Economists assume that people make the same
sort of implicit benefit-cost comparisons with regard to undertaking further
productivity investments as other investments. Specifically, people seemingly
decide whether to accumulate more human capital by comparing anticipated lifetime
benefits (e.g., the stream of earnings from college graduation to retirement) with
costs (e.g., earnings forgone while attending college and out-of-pocket expenses for
tuition and books less student aid).36 If this comparison yields an anticipated rate of
return that exceeds the market interest rate on alternative investments, then wealthmaximizing individuals are hypothesized to continue their schooling.
Empirical studies that utilize a variety of statistical techniques estimate the
causal effect of education on individual earnings — that is, the private monetary
return to one more year of schooling — ranges from about 6% to 11%.37 As this
generally compares favorably with the return on other investment opportunities, the
pursuit of additional formal education seems an economically sound choice for the
average person. The profitability of education appears to vary by population
subgroup (e.g., income category and gender), schooling level, college major, and type
of postsecondary institution (e.g., research universities versus liberal arts colleges).38
There also is evidence that the average return to education changes over time: in the
United States, it has risen in recent decades as the increased demand for collegeeducated workers seemingly outpaced their increased supply. And, estimation of the
rate of return is subject to limitations that can bias it downward or upward (e.g., the
cost of postsecondary school may be omitted as may unobserved determinants of
schooling level; neither the quality of education nor the differential probability of
unemployment by education level typically are taken into account; and schooling as
well as earnings may be incorrectly reported). Nonetheless, rate of return “analysis
remains an objective tool for comparing the costs and benefits of education and for
Because of difficulties involved in measuring these costs, empirical research often ignores
some or all of them. Thus, the estimated wage advantage conferred by education usually
reflects the gross rather than net return.
David Card, “The Causal Effect of Education on Earnings,” in Orley Ashenfelter and
David Card, eds., Handbook of Labor Economics, vol. 3A (Oxford, UK: Elsevier Ltd.,
1999). Note: The range reflects the difference in rates of return calculated by directly
including educational attainment in ordinary-least-squares (OLS) regressions and by using
instrumental variables (IV) to represent schooling. It initially was thought that use of the
IV technique would improve estimation of education’s unique benefits by accounting for
unobservable variables not picked up in OLS analyses. However, the returns to education
utilizing IVs have been greater and less precisely estimated than those derived from OLS.
While this could be interpreted to mean that the upward (ability) bias in OLS estimates of
education’s rate of return is more than offset by the downward (measurement) bias, it also
could mean that IV estimates capture heterogeneity within the student population. With
regard to the latter possibility, the private return based on the IV technique might be higher
because it reflects the above-average earnings gains of children from low-income families
who are the individuals most likely to be affected by increases in the legal minimum age at
which one can leave school and by the proximity of relatively more affordable community
colleges. (Changes in compulsory schooling laws and distance to community colleges are
two commonly employed IVs.)
Laura W. Perna, “The Benefits of Higher Education: Sex, Racial/Ethnic, and
Socioeconomic Group Differences,” Review of Higher Education, vol. 29, no. 1 (fall 2005).
arriving at an estimate, albeit not precise, of the economic value of schooling” both
for individuals and society.39
A voluminous literature on the private market-based return to education has
developed over the last 40 years, with advances in statistical techniques applied to
estimation of the earnings premium from schooling as recently as the 1990s. These
studies of the causal relationship between schooling and earnings have produced rates
of return to education that suggest undertaking further formal education is a
financially worthwhile endeavor for individuals. Schooling becomes even more
beneficial in light of the non-monetary returns it seemingly accords individuals,
although values are rarely developed for this kind of benefit.40
Knowledge of the size of the social return to education is important for
policymakers in their deliberations over public investment in education vis-a-vis
other government functions, and in their deliberations over schooling expenditures
by the public sector compared to spending by students and their families. In contrast
to their long-standing work on private market-based rates of return, researchers have
much more recently focused on the degree to which formal education causes public
monetary and non-monetary benefits. The number of such empirical studies is
increasing, but estimates of the social return’s magnitude remain scarce. Results are
inconsistent as well, but they do provide evidence of the existence of human capital
externalities — that is, government investment in education is justified. Although
the progress made in estimating the private monetary return to schooling implies that
researchers will be able to one day approximate the magnitude of its public return,
that day may be some time off given the daunting analytical task of precisely
measuring the monetary and non-monetary benefits that spill over from highly
educated persons to other members of society.
Menon, An Evaluation of Four Decades of RoR Analysis in Higher Education Policy
Marking, p. 379.
Two analysts utilize results from other empirical research on the private non-monetary
benefits of education to develop estimates of their value. After making stringent
assumptions, they calculate that the improvement in an individual’s own health from an
additional year of schooling is worth a one-time increase of some $9,000 in net family
assets; while the value of gains in children’s cognitive development due to a parent’s
additional education varies widely, it perhaps is equal to an average annual increase in
family income of at least $500; and the increase in household efficiency related to another
year of schooling is valued at about $300 per year on average. Barbara L. Wolfe and Robert
H. Haveman, “Social and Nonmarket Benefits from Education in an Advanced Economy,”
in Yolanda K. Kodrzycki, ed., Education in the 21st Century: Meeting the Challenges of a
Changing World, 47th Economic Conference Proceedings, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston,