• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Return to Education

Values of democracy and values to society.

May 25, 2017

When I discuss “public goods” in my Economics classes, I sometimes illustrate one aspect of the concept by drawing a STOP sign on the board. I ask the students if it is important to them that the person approaching an intersection at the same time knows how to read the words on the sign.

I hope that this helps illustrate the fact that, when people purchase private driving lessons, what they are purchasing is much more than a “private good” with benefits to only the purchaser. Such lessons do allow the student to earn a driving license or to be able to purchase discounted insurance, but they also have benefits to everyone else on the road. Having roads on which fellow drivers are aware of and abide by some commonly accepted rules is a situation that benefits everyone who spends time on the road, as drivers or as passengers.

I thought of this recently in regards to health care. As our roads are safer when everyone has auto insurance, it is also the case that everyone’s health care is better when all people have health insurance. I saw a copy of a letter written by a woman who invoked her fifth-grade social studies class to respond to a lawmaker’s question of why a man should have to pay for health insurance that covers maternity care. She pointed out that many things we do in our democracy do not have direct private returns, but we all, nevertheless, contribute to them, paying for bridges and library books that we may never use. A copy of her letter was widely circulated, and some began to describe it with the words “This is democracy manifest.”

As I am part of higher education, I could not help but be reminded of recent efforts to quantify a “rate of return” to an investment in education. Certainly, no one would want to spend a great amount of money on education if they thought it was not a good use of their money. However, there are other dimensions of education that need to be considered.

For example, it is important to our democracy that voters know how to consume information. Some of the discussion of Russia’s involvement in the last election involves the proliferation of “fake news” stories. It is important to more than the students in college classes that people accessing news can critically digest what is being said, so as to not cast votes based on what is only fiction. However, I wonder if those who are trying to use numbers to describe the benefits to a higher education are trying to quantify the value to our democracy of having an electorate that thinks critically.

I remember my undergraduate college president saying that “the most important things learned in college are not learned in the classroom,” and I wonder how those attempting to quantify a return to education are accounting for the value of trying on new ideas in a group of peers who are doing the same thing at the same time. In addition, how are they accounting for the new awareness of a larger world that often comes with moving away from home for the first time? Certainly, our democracy is served well when the perspectives of citizens and voters expand.

I know that when my daughter chooses a college, I will not be thrilled to help pay for a program in engineering that focuses on designing horse-drawn carriages or for a medical program focusing on the use of leeches, and I would not ask anyone else, and certainly not our government, to do so, either. However, I hope that those who are attempting to quantify a “rate of return” to education are consulting some of the literature from studies calculating the cost and benefits of social welfare programs. They could then better incorporate the external benefits that may arise from higher education into their calculations.

As part of higher education, and, perhaps, as fellow parents, what other external benefits do you think need to be included in such calculations?

                                  Wishing all of my readers a wonderful Memorial Day weekend and a great start to the summer!



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