Opinion

DUNN: Educational Choice Is Essential To A Skills-Based Economy

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Damon Dunn Fellow in Business & Economics, Pacific Research Institute

The skills and education of every American will form the basis of our nation’s long term success, as well as the solution to many of the most divisive issues in American politics. Issues such as wage stagnation, income inequality, unaffordable housing, and income mobility can be directly addressed through a specific set of evidence-based, targeted, and market-driven reforms to existing government programs.

Decades of education reform have uncovered a long list of ineffective policies, while also revealing a handful of promising interventions. One of these “diamonds in the rough” remains the performance of charter schools in urban areas. The outsized effectiveness of charter schools in our most troubled communities is particularly heartening because these schools of choice are most effective for precisely those students who have been harmed the most by our current education system (including low income and minority students).

However, supporting high-quality educational options for students in rural areas remains a challenge.  It should be a priority to expand charter school options for these students.

Broadening our gaze beyond specific policy proposals, a decentralized, evidence-based, choice-focused set of reforms should remain at the heart of future intelligent reform efforts.

Vocational training is also a piece of the puzzle, albeit one that has proven hard to implement effectively. To be blunt, apart from Germany’s oft-cited model of apprenticeship for non-college bound students, previous attempts to promote centralized job training programs have not been overwhelmingly successful.

The recent success of populist politics in America has increased the visibility of the struggles facing blue-collar workers, which have been essentially ignored by Washington’s bipartisan establishment for decades. Vocational programs largely relied upon by these workers are regularly compared to traditional “academic tracks” focused on funneling students to achieve two or four-year degrees.

However, the relevant counterfactual for many students that choose to participate in a vocational program is not college but pursuing no higher education at all. Compared to this, even a modestly successful vocational training program becomes much more appealing.

When targeted correctly, job-specific training can also produce other benefits for society, including reduced recidivism rates. And combining vocational training to the end of our traditional K-12 system, at least for a subset of students, could also produce many benefits including increased employment and preparedness for succeeding on the job. Most promisingly, these results have been found for students who would not otherwise be likely to succeed in the labor force.

Of course, some students will and should receive a traditional college education, which still produces a substantial rate of return for students compared to those without post-secondary credentialing and those who complete vocational training. BA and BS degree holders are fifty percent less likely to be unemployed than those with only a high school degree, and they will make roughly one-million dollars more over a lifetime than their peers without college degrees.

While there are surely other relevant differences between high school and college graduates that explains some of the difference, there’s no doubt that a college degree still produces a strong positive effect for those who graduate.

More important than the vocational vs AA vs BA/BS conversation, however, is the importance of pursuing at least some form of post-secondary education. Consider that no fewer than 99 percent percent of all jobs created since the Great Recession went to people with at least some form of post-high school education.

Given the close link between employment and poverty, it is no surprise that the poverty rate for college graduates is 3.5 times lower than for those with only a high school degree, which is itself lower than that the rate for non-high school graduates.

The evidence is clear, and our mission is obvious. We must champion market-based reforms targeted at specific urban and rural regions, including those hurting most from stagnant wages and lack of opportunity. The answer lies in the diverse genius and strength of our 50 individual states, who collectively are far wiser than their collected representatives in Washington in what needs to be done to prepare America’s workforce for the future.

Damon Dunn is a fellow in business and economics at the Pacific Research Institute, a nonprofit group advocating for limited government.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.