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Education as a tragedy of the commons

The New York Times is discussing whether we spend too much on education, or not enough. It might help to phrase the question more explicitly, either as:

1) Would individual families benefit from investing more in their own education?

2) Would society as a whole benefit from investing more in education?

Two commentators point out that individuals with more education have substantially higher salaries, on average. Maybe those individuals would have had higher salaries even if they hadn't gone to college, of course, or even if they'd gone to a less-expensive college. That question has been debated elsewhere, and I don't have anything to add.

But even if college is a good investment for individuals, it isn't necessarily true that we would be better off, collectively, if we spent more, collectively, on education. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the number of high-paid jobs is fixed at 10% of the working-age population. If those with more education are more likely to get those jobs, then investing in education makes sense for individuals and their families.

Education could be a sound individual investment even if the education itself was worthless and incomes were determined only by credentials relative to others. But, if producing more people who are qualified to be medical doctors doesn't increase the number of jobs for doctors, then the higher pay of college-educated doctors relative to less-educated nondoctors doesn't make educating more people a good investment for society as a whole. Individual benefits from investing in education don't necessarily translate into societal benefits from investing in education.

How might society benefit if more people were more educated? My guess is that, if more people were better educated, we would have less crime, a stronger economy, and better political decision-making. My guess is that these societal benefits would outweigh the societal costs of investing more in education. But you can't estimate the total return on these societal investments from the economic return to individuals from investing in their own education. Societal benefit:cost ratios could be lower or higher than those for individuals.

Here's another important point. The return on investments in one kind of education for one group doesn't necessarily predict the return on investments in other kinds of education for other groups. Years ago I saw a comparison of countries that started with similar economies and invested similar amounts of public money either in universities or in primary education. Investing in primary education led to lower birth rates, so the education budget was spread among fewer kids. They developed educated workforces and their economies grew, so that eventually they could afford universities as well. (Until then, citizens wanting more education got it in other countries, thereby making contacts that improved trade.) In contrast, the countries that focused on universities only educated -- "credentialed" might be a better word -- the children of the ruling kleptocracy. The overall population stayed ignorant, birth rates stayed high, and economies stagnated.

Fortunately, I live in a rich country that can afford both great universities and great primary and secondary schools. An honest cost:benefit analysis would be a good place to start.


Most countries who concentrated more on higher education just find those same graduates migrate to more developed countries as they find that the uneducated lower and middle class of their own country are unable to support the services they are supposed to offer.

I can see that there has gotten to be some potential for this to be the case. Partly however because we lump education into the economic good camp though. Well done education is immensely valuable, but in the Progressive mold it far too much about training, jobs, and pieces of paper. Schools at all levels have fallen prey to the short term practical measurables instead of the hard to measure, but more important things like making better people and citizens.

First – thanks for pointing to the NY Times discussion. I’d not have seen it otherwise.

Help me understand how education is a tragedy of the commons. In my limited experience of the commons metaphor I’ve always considered the commons to be a limited (or fixed) resource - a meadow shared by neighboring livestock farmers. Are we not arguing about the price of education? Financial resources might be the common – and how investment decisions are made collectively or individually then falls into the rubric of the tragedy. Now if we take the pool of financial resources as our common we should examine all potential investments… because opportunity costs become salient. Are public investments in space exploration, plant science research, health care, (insert favorite project here), more valuable than investment in education?

That nitpick aside, I do like the notion of carving out the distinction between individuals and the whole society when considering the question.

My next picky point aims at the assumption made in order to define the number of high-paid jobs (at 10% of the working age pop). Agreed – you need to pick a point to start the discussion, but if one considers the range of pay in the market as continuous, and higher as simply greater than lower, then can we agree that nearly 50% of jobs available would be higher paying than the mean rate of pay (simple arithmetic mean… median and mode left for another debate)? Now your point appears to me to remain valid when only changing the per centage of jobs in the example (greater educational investment still makes more sense for individuals). But I want to argue that the whole society benefits in a different manner – not so much in the absolute wage receipts of individuals – but in the value those wages represent. In a market where certain infrastructure elements exist (roads, electric grid, safe drinking water) individuals, regardless of their absolute wage earnings, are spared some of the time and cost of procuring these (paying a water bill vs. digging and maintaining a well for instance). This infrastructure rich economy resulted from past levels of educational investment and the resulting technological advancement engendered by the more educated populace.

So to summarize my rambling… it occurs to me one outcome of education is expanded public resources and infrastructure (or an expanding commons). If this is correct, I consider education not a tragedy of the commons, but an enabling resource for the commons. At least that would be the argument for the value of education past. Another argument might consider whether future educational efforts will continue in this vein.


Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I don't think we are in fundamental disagreement; it's more a matter of emphasis. My 10% was indeed arbitrary. The real question is whether the number of well-paid jobs automatically expands as much as the number of highly educated people increases. If not, then differences in salaries with education are still relevant to individual investments in education, but less so to collective (i.e., societal) benefits of investing in education.

I use "tragedy of the commons" (or the two-person version, the Prisoner's Dilemma) loosely to refer to any situation where individually rational choices lead to collectively suboptimal results. I think this is consistent with Hardin's original article which ranged from pollution to procreation. I could have made the same point by asking whether education has become an "arms race", where we spend more to stay ahead of the competition, even though we would all be better off spending less.

I've gone back and bolded my main point: education is probably under-funded, but the socially optimal level of investment in education can't be determined from the individually optimal level. Similarly, we may get greater social returns from investing in different KINDS of education than individuals would, if individuals are mainly seeking arbitrary credentials -- once, that might have been Latin -- to compete for jobs, rather than knowledge and skills that will help them actually do their jobs better, enjoy life more, or be better citizens.

I agree that education could be seen as an investment in infrastructure. How does the return on this investment compare with other investments in infrastructure, from roads and bridge repair to the fundamental research behind improvements in healthcare, agriculture, and other industries?

Investing in education definitely provides society with benefits, starting at a very young age. This has been seen in developing countries, and even in currently developed countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, and many others. Some of these benefits are monetary, but the more important benefits come as the society as a whole becomes more aware of the world around them. This allows each person to contribute more to their own well-being as well as others well-being much more easily.

The benefits of investment in education is subject to the economy of the country. The economies in which other issues like sanitation, health and food are well-managed, investment in education can help the economy grow. Investment in education translates into a well aware youth which is the base for efficient human resource. However, in economies where basic amenities are not available, education can lead to wasted investments. Even in these economies this investment in education will translate into a better and more aware human resource, however other supporting factors like availability of jobs(as mentioned in the article) might not be available. In the end it leads to "educated unemployment". This is more harmful than "uneducated unemployment" since the former type includes heavy investments with no returns. Therefore, it is essential to consider other factors before a collective investment in education.

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