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Was Higher Education a Major Channel through which the United States Became an Economic Superpower in the 20th Century?

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  • Cook, Adam

    (Asian Development Bank Institute)

  • Ehrlich, Isaac

    (Asian Development Bank Institute)

Abstract

We offer a thesis for why the United States (US) overtook the United Kingdom (UK) and other European countries in the 20th century in both aggregate and per capita GDP as a case study of recent models of endogenous growth, where “human capital” is the engine of growth. By human capital we mean an intangible asset, best thought of as a stock of embodied and disembodied knowledge comprising education, information, entrepreneurship, and productive and innovative skills, which is formed through investments in schooling, job training, and health as well as through research and development projects and informal knowledge transfers (cf. Ehrlich and Murphy 2007). The conjecture is that the ascendancy of the US as an economic superpower in the 20th century owes considerably to its faster human capital formation relative to that of the UK and “old Europe.” We assess whether the thesis has legs to stand on through both stylized facts and a supplementary quasi-experimental empirical analysis. The stylized facts indicate that the US led other major developed countries in schooling attainments per adult population member, beginning in the latter part of the 19th century and lasting throughout the 20th century, especially at the secondary and tertiary levels. The quasi-experimental analysis constitutes the first attempt to test the hypothesis that the US’s ascendancy to a major economic power stems largely from the impact of the first Morrill Act of 1862, which launched the public higher education movement in the US through the establishment of land grant colleges and universities across the nation during the latter part of the 19th century.

Suggested Citation

  • Cook, Adam & Ehrlich, Isaac, 2018. "Was Higher Education a Major Channel through which the United States Became an Economic Superpower in the 20th Century?," ADBI Working Papers 820, Asian Development Bank Institute.
  • Handle: RePEc:ris:adbiwp:0820
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    References listed on IDEAS

    as
    1. Robert E. Hall & Charles I. Jones, 1999. "Why do Some Countries Produce So Much More Output Per Worker than Others?," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 114(1), pages 83-116.
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    3. Isaac Ehrlich & Dunli Li & Zhiqiang Liu, 2017. "The Role of Entrepreneurial Human Capital as a Driver of Endogenous Economic Growth," Journal of Human Capital, University of Chicago Press, vol. 11(3), pages 310-351.
    4. Isaac Ehrlich & Jinyoung Kim, 2007. "The Evolution of Income and Fertility Inequalities over the Course of Economic Development: A Human Capital Perspective," Journal of Human Capital, University of Chicago Press, vol. 1(1), pages 137-174.
    5. Isaac Ehrlich & Yong Yin, 2005. "Explaining Diversities in Age-Specific Life Expectancies and Values of Life Saving: A Numerical Analysis," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 31(2), pages 129-162, September.
    6. Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz, 1999. "The Shaping of Higher Education: The Formative Years in the United States, 1890 to 1940," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 13(1), pages 37-62, Winter.
    7. Goldin, Claudia, 2001. "The Human-Capital Century And American Leadership: Virtues Of The Past," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 61(02), pages 263-292, June.
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    9. Isaac Ehrlich & Kevin M. Murphy, 2007. "Why Does Human Capital Need a Journal?," Journal of Human Capital, University of Chicago Press, vol. 1(1), pages 1-7.
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    More about this item

    Keywords

    human capital; endogenous growth; Morrill Act; higher education; treatment effects; US;

    JEL classification:

    • C21 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Single Equation Models; Single Variables - - - Cross-Sectional Models; Spatial Models; Treatment Effect Models
    • H10 - Public Economics - - Structure and Scope of Government - - - General
    • I20 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - General
    • N10 - Economic History - - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics; Industrial Structure; Growth; Fluctuations - - - General, International, or Comparative
    • N30 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - General, International, or Comparative
    • O00 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - General - - - General
    • O40 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity - - - General

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