Paul Lachine

Higher Education Misconceived

Ever since economists revealed how much universities contribute to economic growth, politicians have paid close attention to higher education. In doing so, however, they often misconceive the role of universities in ways that undermine their policies.

CAMBRIDGE – Ever since economists revealed how much universities contribute to economic growth, politicians have paid close attention to higher education. In doing so, however, they often misconceive universities’ role in ways that undermine their policies.

For example, US President Barack Obama has repeatedly stressed the need to increase the percentage of young Americans earning a college degree. This is undoubtedly a worthwhile aim that can contribute to national prosperity and help young people realize the American Dream. Yet economists who have studied the relationship between education and economic growth confirm what common sense suggests: the number of college degrees is not nearly as important as how well students develop cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving ability.

Failure to recognize this point can have significant consequences. As countries embrace mass higher education, the cost of maintaining universities increases dramatically relative to an elite system. Given that governments have many other programs to support – and that people resist higher taxes – finding the money to pay for such an effort becomes increasingly difficult. Universities must therefore try to provide a quality education to more students while spending as little money as possible.

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