Garrett Jones at the Econlog blog reports that from 1960-2000, there is no evidence that increasing growth in years people spend in formal education has any measurable effect on economic growth--in fact there seems to be a slight decrease in growth associated with growth in education years.
But what of the grand investment in "human capital" associated with education we hear so much about? No evidence it exists on the national level in a way that is expressed in national economic growth. (The personal advantages in sitting in school all day are a different matter, one you should decide for yourself on your own dime.)
As Jones writes:
Some might look at these results and say, "Higher education actually is great for entire countries, but these studies just couldn't discern that greatness. After all, correlation isn't causation."
But that claim creates its own puzzle: If raising education really is so fantastic for countries, why can't we find nation-level evidence of that? We can easily find evidence that switching to faster money growth usually predicts higher inflation, that switching to more market-oriented institutions predicts faster economic growth. The correlations show up just fine there--so why is data-torturing required when countries switch to pro-education policies?
And if defenders of increased education want to claim that "We just need to do it right next time" then defenders of sound social science need to retort: "Then I'm sure you'll understand if we absolutely insist on solid, experimentally sound evidence, along with proof of scalability, before we sign off on a nationwide program that will cost a couple of percent of GDP."
In a world of opportunity cost, "Let's give it a try: It can't hurt" should be a punchline.
I blogged earlier this month on the lie of American education being starved of funding, and in 2009 about lack of correlation between education spending and even educational achievement, much less economic growth.