Education tends to pay off. Higher educational attainment is associated with higher earnings, lower unemployment and better health. In the Future of Children, Neeraj Kaushal explains that education also influences important lifestyle decisions such as marriage, sex, childbearing, and substance use.
Importantly, parents’ education not only affects themselves, but also affects the wellbeing of their children. Better-educated parents often pass down the tradition of education to their children along with its benefits. The intergenerational payoffs of education are persistent and perhaps even underestimated.
While some families benefit immensely from education, other families face structural obstacles to advancing their socioeconomic status via further educational attainment. Racial and ethnic disparities are apparent by education, and children with less-educated parents are less likely to succeed in school. Furthermore, Kaushal points out, the U.S. education system reinforces socioeconomic inequality across generations by spending more money on educating richer children than poorer children.
These challenges lend support to the idea of targeting education-related interventions toward less-educated parents and their children. This might be done via a two-generation approach in which parents and children are served simultaneously. While the theoretical basis for these programs is strong, the empirical evidence is only emerging. What we do know is that investing in parents is likely to have a lasting effect on children’s health and development, which in turn increases their wellbeing as adults. There is also evidence that adult offspring’s educational attainment influences the health and life expectancy of the parents, even after accounting for parents’ socioeconomic resources. This may be due to children’s knowledge of health and technology they share with their parents and having more financial means to support them. It’s arguable that investing in programs that aim to increase parents’ education and skills at the same time as they invest in children’s development could go a long way to reduce intergenerational inequality.
For more information about two-generation programs, see the Future of Children volume Helping Parents, Helping Children: Two-Generation Mechanisms.
Obama is poised to sign into law the $789 billion stimulus bill agreed to by Congress this week. The plan has a noteworthy amount – close to $100 billion according to the Christian Science Monitor — of federal education spending. While education spending does stimulate the economy, to be truly effective in raising incomes in the long term, the money should be used to improve education quality.
As our recent volumes on education show, in its current form education perpetuates rather than compensates for existing income inequalities. This happens for three reasons: 1) the K through 12 education system is simply not very strong and thus not an effective way to break the link between a poor parental background and a child’s eventual success; 2) because K–12 education is financed largely at the state and local level, resources devoted to education are closely linked with where people live so poor children tend to go to poor schools; and 3) access both to a quality preschool experience and to higher education continues to depend heavily on family resources.
In the policy brief, “Opportunity in America: The Role of Education
,” Isabel Sawhill proposes a four part strategy to increase the ability of education to raise income and increase mobility: 1) investment in high quality preschool; 2) setting clear (and perhaps federal) standards for what children K–12 should know; 3) increasing federal funding of education and linking this funding to improved school performance; and 4) encouraging greater use of proven instructional methods.
It is unclear at this point whether the billions set aside for education in the current stimulus package does all this. For example, early education is funded, but through the Head Start program which has not proven as high quality as either the most successful demonstration programs or some of the programs used by more affluent parents. Federal money for education is provided – in unprecedented amounts – but just a small portion is tied to uniform standards for performance and it unclear whether any is linked to mandatory use of research-based curricula.
Education can be instrumental in helping students gain the skills they need to become self-sufficient, working adults. However, it must be quality education. The jury is still out on whether the stimulus bill making its way to President Obama’s desk creates the sort of system that will produce results.