What is best measure of learning success?

By Morton Marcus

One of the most popular numbers used to describe (and often judge) a community is educational attainment. The Census Bureau provides such data for the nation, states, counties, townships, cities and towns. With technological progress, we can expect to learn how many years of schooling or what degrees are held by the angels atop that famous pin.

But years of schooling, certificates and degrees are not precise measures of what a person knows, of his/her actual educational attainment. Nor do those metrics indicate what a person can do. They are, like Little League statues, participation awards.

Yet, until something better comes along, that’s what politicians, business savants, even economists look for as an indicator of promise, capability and innovative capacity.

“Something better has come along,” a commanding voice says. I look around, but there is no one about.

“Who said that?” I ask. “What is better than educational attainment?”

“Educational participation,” the voice rattled the windows. “I want to know how many people are engaged in learning, preparing themselves for the future. A degree 20, 30 or 40 years old may be worthless. Not only may that person not know what is needed to be known today, the learning skills of that person may have atrophied.”

“Where do we have that number?” I asked. “I’ve not seen it incorporated in any reports.”

“Of course you have,” the voice rumbled. “It’s just that you haven’t bothered to see it. The numerator is widely known: it’s the number of persons, by age, engaged in learning. The denominator is simply the number of persons of that age.”

“Right,” I said. “But I can think of all sorts of adjustments and modifications that can be made to both the top and the bottom of that fraction, that percentage figure.”

“Certainly,” the voice contained a resounding laugh that did not relate to humor. “Just start simply and go from there. In the U.S., we have 9.2 percent of the population 15 and older enrolled in college, graduate or professional school. Indiana has 8.9 percent of that population enrolled. We are below the national average in all major Census age groups.”

“So what’s new?” I wise-cracked.

There was silence, a heavy silence, a foreboding quiet as one might hear in a glacial cavern before an iceberg calved.

“If education is the key to the future,” the voice’s whisper was a roar, “and if that future will require one skill above all others, the skill to learn, then firms will want workers who are practiced learners.

“Seven states,” the voice continued, “have more than 10 percent of their population 15 and older enrolled in college and graduate programs. Indiana is probably happy to rank 27th, trailing such states as Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Utah.”

“Is it going to be like that?” I wondered. “Are we doomed to be lifelong students? Will we never escape from being institutionalized?”

There was no answer.

Morton Marcus is an economist, formerly with the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.