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Report Rejects Myth that Education Eliminates Inequality, but Claims Education Is Key to Economic Prosperity

Illuminating analysis combined with flawed assumptions and unsupported contentions yield mixed review


A recent report from The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution examines several important questions about education’s economic power and includes some useful analyses and interesting conclusions. Its analysis, however, oversimplifies the importance of college degrees in boosting the economy, while rejecting the widely held view that education can substantially reduce economic inequality. 

Marvin Lazerson and Ryan Pfleger reviewed Increasing Education: What it Will and Will Not Do for Earnings and Earnings Inequality for the Think Twice think tank review project. The review is published by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

Dr. Lazerson is a professor of higher education policy at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary, and an emeritus professor, University of Pennsylvania. Ryan Pflegeris a doctoral candidate in Educational Foundations, Policy, and Practice at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The Hamilton Project report discusses three commonly held propositions about education’s economic power: (a) education is the critical factor in creating economic prosperity; (b) college and advanced degrees increase the earning power of individuals; and (c) a broad base of increased educational attainment will narrow income inequality. It asserts that the first proposition is true and that the second proposition is accurate, especially at the middle-income-and-below range. The report finds the third proposition inaccurate, concluding that a significant increase in educational attainment is not likely to significantly decrease wage inequality.

Lazerson and Pfleger praise as “illuminating” the report’s empirically based simulation that projects what would happen if an additional 10 percent of the population suddenly received college degrees. They note, however, that the analysis has important limitations. There is little direct evidence in the report to show that increasing educational attainment is, as the authors contend, “the most effective and direct way” to improve economic prosperity. Also, the report’s data are drawn only from males and no attention is paid to how income gains differ across gender, race, field of study, labor-market conditions, and institutional reputation.

The reviewers stress that no data analysis is provided in the report to support claims about the relative effectiveness of education compared to other ways to address economic problems. Claiming that the primary solution to a wide array of economic problems is to improve “human capital,” the report perpetuates a problematic myth that undervalues alternative ways to address poverty and economic insecurity. Indeed the assumption of the knowledge society narrative, that everything depends upon more education, may itself be flawed.

Though the report’s policy conclusions about education are important, economic and political actions are critical as well in closing income and social gaps. As the reviewers write, “[u]sing schooling as a quick fix for economic problems is not going to do it.”

Find Lazerson and Pfleger’s review on the NEPC website at:

Find Increasing Education: What it Will and Will Not Do for Earnings and Earnings Inequalityby Hershbein, Kearney and Summers and published by The Hamilton Project on the web at: 

The Think Twice think tank review project ( of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) provides the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. The Think Twice think tank review project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on the NEPC, please visit

This review is also found on the GLC website at


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