The causal effect of education on earnings
In: Handbook of Labor Economics
This paper surveys the recent literature on the causal relationship between education and earnings. I focus on four areas of work: theoretical and econometric advances in modelling the causal effect of education in the presence of heterogeneous returns to schooling; recent studies that use institutional aspects of the education system to form instrumental variables estimates of the return to schooling; recent studies of the earnings and schooling of twins; and recent attempts to explicitly model sources of heterogeneity in the returns to education. Consistent with earlier surveys of the literature, I conclude that the average (or average marginal) return to education is not much below the estimate that emerges from a standard human capital earnings function fit by OLS. Evidence from the latest studies of identical twins suggests a small upward "ability" bias -- on the order of 10%. A consistent finding among studies using instrumental variables based on institutional changes in the education system is that the estimated returns to schooling are 20-40% above the corresponding OLS estimates. Part of the explanation for this finding may be that marginal returns to schooling for certain subgroups -- particularly relatively disadvantaged groups with low education outcomes -- are higher than the average marginal returns to education in the population as a whole.
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