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The miseducation of America's legislators

College degrees don't correlate with policy success.

By Robert Maranto

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a fascinating article titled "How Educated Are State Legislators?" It pointed out that 74.7 percent of America's 7,400 state legislators have a bachelor's or more advanced degree, and that few attended elite or out-of-state universities. The share of lawmakers with at least a bachelor's degree ranged from just 53.4 percent in New Hampshire's citizen legislature to 89.9 percent in California's highly professional one; Pennsylvania's and New Jersey's were toward the more educated end, at 75.5 percent and 79.9 percent, respectively.

Some of the experts interviewed by the Chronicle admitted that more than a few great policymakers never set foot in a college, but the quarter of legislators with no college degree caused concern. University of Missouri political science professor Peverill Squire told the publication that he sees college as essential for leaders, since it teaches the analytical skills needed to think independently. Policymakers "must be able to critically analyze large quantities of conflicting information that special interests and others provide," he told the Chronicle. "The great value of a college education is an improved ability to assess such competing claims."

State legislators are in fact far more educated than their constituents, just 28 percent of whom have college degrees. Yet they are far less educated than members of Congress, just four of whom (or less than 1 percent) lack a four-year degree. Compared with state lawmakers, members of Congress are also more likely to have gone beyond a bachelor's degree and more apt to have attended elite universities. One of 30 Congress members has a degree from Yale, compared with only one of 189 state legislators.

But the Chronicle didn't directly address Professor Squire's claim that more education provides better analytical skills. In their just-published Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa point out that colleges have watered down standards in recent years, partly in the interest of retaining students. Summarizing data from more than 2,000 undergraduates at 24 colleges and universities, the authors report that 85 percent of students have a grade-point average equivalent to a B-minus or higher, while 55 percent have a B-plus or higher.

This is despite the fact that the average student studies less than two hours a day. In a typical semester, half of America's college students don't take a single course requiring 20 or more pages of written work, and a third won't take a course requiring at least 40 pages of reading per week.

With so little academic work, the average college does little to improve the skills that Squire finds so vital. Arum and Roksa tested students at three points in their college careers, and they found depressingly little evidence of improvement in their complex reasoning, critical thinking, or writing skills.

But maybe college helps in other ways, such as financial discipline or ethics. Might those qualities make college-educated legislators better stewards of the public trust?

To crudely test this, my research assistant Charlie Belin compared the prevalence of college education in each state's legislature with its estimated budget deficit as a percentage of total revenues, as calculated by the Pew Center on the States. If college is so useful, then states with more educated legislators, like California, should have lower deficits, since their leaders would be more capable of, as Squire puts it, thinking independently and assessing competing claims.

Alas, it was not to be. As the percentage of legislators with four-year (and higher) college degrees rises, so, too, does a state's relative budget deficit. The correlation between a state's budget gap and its legislature's college education is 0.25 - with zero being no correlation and 1 being a perfect correlation - which despite the small sample size (i.e., the 50 states) is statistically significant. The budget deficit correlates even more highly with the percentage of legislators with an advanced degree, at 0.29.

Meanwhile, Congress, which is more educated than any state legislature, also has a proportionately bigger budget deficit. And regular citizens, who are less educated, have relatively less debt on average.

Of course, correlation does not prove causation. Still, the numbers provide little reason to think that more college leads to more responsible policy-making.

Perhaps college makes people better at evading data than at facing it. As a professor and former government employee I know jokes, "It takes a lot of sophistication to run a huge deficit."

As a member of a university faculty, I am pained to admit that somebody looking at these numbers might get the impression that the way to end state budget woes is to defund the universities.