Is Education a Public Good?

A recent study published by the Brookings Institution finds that, on average, individuals with a college education earn about $1 million more over their lifetimes than those without a college degree.

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Introduction

Education has long been considered a public good. The thinking goes that since educated people can contribute so much to society, it is in everyone’s best interest to make sure as many people are educated as possible. There are many public goods, such as roads and bridges, that we all use and benefit from, so why not add education to the list?

The problem with this way of thinking is that it ignores the fact that not everyone benefits from education in the same way. In fact, some people may benefit quite a bit while others gain very little. This inequity can be a big problem for society if we view education as a public good.

Theoretical Background

Theories of Public Goods

economists have proposed a number of theories to explain why public goods are underprovided by the private market. The theories can be broadly divided into two groups: those that focus on the preferences of consumers and those that focus on the incentives of producers.

The first group of theories emphasizes that people may have different preferences for public and private goods. In particular, they may place a higher value on private goods than on public goods. As a result, they will be willing to pay more for private goods than for public goods. This difference in preferences leads to an under provision of public
goods by the private market.

The second group of theories focuses on the incentives of producers. These theories suggest that firms have an incentive to under provide public goods because they can appropriate a portion of the benefits from these products (i.e., they can capture some of the consumer surplus). For example, if a firm produces a new drug, it can charge high prices and make large profits. But if the same firm were to produce a new vaccine, it might not be able to charge as high of a price because vaccines are typically considered a public good. As a result, firms have less incentive to develop new vaccines than new drugs. This difference in incentives leads to an under provision of public
goods by the private market.

Theories of Education

There are several different theories of education, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. The most common theories are the public goods theory, the human capital theory, and the signaling theory.

The public goods theory posits that education is a public good that should be provided by the government for the benefit of society as a whole. This theory has the benefit of providing everyone with an equal opportunity to access education, but it can be expensive to implement and may not be effective in all cases.

The human capital theory posits that education is an investment in human capital that will pay off in the form of increased productivity and earnings. This theory has the benefit of being more targeted and efficient than the public goods theory, but it does not guarantee that everyone will have access to education.

The signaling theory posits that education is a signal of ability or intelligence that employers use to weed out potential employees. This theory has the benefit of providing incentives for people to invest in their own education, but it can also lead to discrimination against certain groups of people.

Empirical Evidence

Education has long been considered a public good. The rationale is that educated citizens are better able to participate in the economy and contribute to society, and that individuals cannot be excluded from benefiting from education. There is a great deal of empirical evidence to support this view.

Educational Outcomes

The United States spends more money per capita on education than any other country in the world, yet it ranks 31st in reading, 36th in science, and 24th in math according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Also, according to a study done by the American Institutes for Research, 18% of American children cannot read at a basic level, 42% cannot do basic math, and less than 1/3 are proficient in both reading and math. So what explains these dismal results?

There are a variety of explanations. One is that we simply expect too much from our public education system. In other words, we are asking it to solve problems that it was never designed to solve; problems like poverty, crime, and teenage pregnancy. Another explanation is that we are not adequately funding our public schools. In fact, we are spending less per pupil today than we did 10 years ago when adjusted for inflation.

It is also important to consider the role of families and communities in education. We know that children from low-income families are more likely to drop out of school and that children from high-performing schools are more likely to go on to college. We also know that parental involvement is one of the strongest predictors of academic success. Finally, we must recognize that some students simply have more ability than others. No matter how much money we spend or how many programs we put into place, there will always be disparities in educational outcomes.

The Effects of Education on Economic Growth

Education is widely considered to be a public good. This means that it is believed to have positive externalities – benefits that extend beyond the individual who consumes the good. These benefits can include improved economic growth, higher tax revenues, and increased social mobility.

There is empirical evidence to support these claims. A large body of research has found that increases in educational attainment lead to higher economic growth. For example, a 2009 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that each additional year of schooling led to an average increase in GDP per capita of 0.37%.

Other studies have looked at the relationship between education and specific measures of economic performance, such as productivity or employment. A 2014 study by economists at the University of Copenhagen found that each extra year of schooling led to an increase in productivity of 2.5%. Similarly, a 2012 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that each additional year of education led to a 1% increase in employment.

There is also evidence that education leads to higher tax revenues. A 2013 study by economists at the University of California, Berkeley found that a 1% increase in educational attainment led to an increase in tax revenues of 0.4%.

Finally, there is evidence that education leads to increased social mobility. A 2016 study by economists at Stanford University found that children from low-income families who attended Head Start – a US government program that provides early childhood education – were more likely to attend college and earn more as adults than those who did not attend Head Start.

In sum, there is strong evidence that education has positive externalities and leads to economic growth, higher tax revenues, and increased social mobility.

Conclusion

While education may have some characteristics of a public good, it is important to remember that it is not completely free from the problems associated with private goods. There are still benefits to be had from investing in education, but it is important to be aware of the potential downsides as well.

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