Finally, after many delays it is time to get off my duff and post the next installment of the education series that I have promised. Today I want to focus on Higher Ed and how the state should think about its investments in different types of higher ed. I am not suggesting there is a zero-sum game here (in fact the opposite is true, they are all strong complements), but there is often a debate about priorities in tight budget times, and it is useful them to think about objectives and how to effectively reach them.
This is a particularly good time to write about this as there have been a number of high profile pieces in the media about public higher ed in Oregon. Dave Sarasohn’s opinion piece in the Oregonian today is one, the OPB “Think Out Loud” two-part show with the presidents of EOU, OSU, PSU and UO is another (they don't seem to have a link to the second hour), and Tom Potiowsky’s address to the Portland City Club on Friday is a third.
So how should we think about higher ed and the growth of the state’s economy. Virtually no economist has thought about this more than Philipe Aghion of Harvard University. He started with theoretical work and has now moved into examining the theory with empirical evidence.
Like I did last time I am going to use one paper as a focal point. Aghion, et. al., "Exploiting States' Mistakes to Identify the Causal Impact of Higher Education on Growth." (The link is to the shorter version of the paper). The title refers to the fact that since we expect growth and investment in higher education to be correlated, so it is hard to isolate causal the link between investment in higher education and subsequent growth caused by that investment.
The essential message from his work is this – you can be a innovator or an imitator. Innovators drive economic growth and imitators play catch up. Silicon Valley is full of innovators, the Silicon Forest, I would argue is full of imitators. What Aghion argues is that if you want to be innovators - which we very much want to be in terms of green technology - then you must invest heavily in higher education, but not just higher education, graduate research universities.
There is another side of course, if you are not going to be at the frontier (and you can do pretty well being an imitator), then it is potentially wasteful to spend too much on this type of higher ed and you would do better investing in undergraduate only universities and community colleges. Please keep in mind that the latter are not unimportant even if you are an innovator, it is really about the question: should a state prioritize investments in graduate research universities? If you are an imitator state, the most bang for the buck in terms of growth effects of education spending is two and four year undergraduate education, but if a state is on the technological frontier then the biggest bang for the buck is in graduate research institutions.
There is also a positive feedback effect in that if a state establishes itself on the technological frontier it will get the benefit of in-migration of highly skilled individuals (and thus reap the benefit of out of state investments in human capital). It also exacerbates the difference between leader and follower states. So if you can become an innovation state, you get into a self-reinforcing cycle. This helps explain the long dominance of Silicon Valley (and California in general) in high tech.
Arguably Oregon has made large strides to establish itself on a few frontiers: there is no doubt that the Portland areas has become a place of in-migration of highly artistic and creative types and the city has established itself as a center for design and advertising. The state has tried to establish itself on the frontier of computer technology (the Silicon Forest) but success here has been minimal and it seems pretty easy to argue that in high tech the state is still in the imitator category (and the link with this and the underinvestment in higher ed is pretty clear – you can’t depend entirely on in-migration, you have to create talented people at home as well).
Through innovative statistical analysis the authors of the current paper find that a thousand dollars per person in additional spending on research universities raises a frontier state’s per-employee annual growth rate by 0.269 percentage points but only 0.093 if that state is an imitator state. Conversely a thousand dollars per person in additional spending on undergraduate education in four year colleges raises imitator states annual growth rates by 0.198 percentage points but innovator states growth by only 0.053. They also find that migration accounts for about half the difference between the frontier and far from the frontier states. [And, by the way, lest these seem small, remember with national annual growth rates of about 2.5% over the last 50 years, something that increases growth by a quarter or half a percent is a ten to twenty percent increase in growth rates – pretty huge and it is hard to imagine another investment as effective at doing this] And though the argument may be made that in tight budget times it is necessary to focus on K-12, it is worthwhile to remember that with good economic growth come the resources for future investments in K-12.
The message for Oregon seems clear: if we are serious about being an innovator state in green technology or anything else, we need to invest in its research universities. Tax breaks and inspiring speeches are not enough.