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Can education compensate for low ability? Evidence from British data (version 3.1)


  • Kevin Denny
  • Vincent O'Sullivan


This paper uses cross section data to investigate whether education and ability are substitutes or complements in the determination of earnings. Using a measure of cognitive ability based on tests taken at ages 7 and 11 we find, unlike most of the existing literature, clear evidence that the return to schooling is lower for those with higher ability indicating that education can act as a substitute for observed ability. We also estimate quantile regression functions to examine how the return to schooling varies across the conditional distribution of earnings. The results show that the return is lower for higher quantiles, suggesting that education is also a substitute for unobserved ability. This paper forms part of the Policy Evaluation Program at the Institute for the Study of Social Change (ISSC) at UCD.

Suggested Citation

  • Kevin Denny & Vincent O'Sullivan, 2004. "Can education compensate for low ability? Evidence from British data (version 3.1)," Working Papers 200420, School of Economics, University College Dublin.
  • Handle: RePEc:ucn:wpaper:200420

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Telhado Pereira, Pedro & Silva Martins, Pedro, 2002. "Is there a return-risk link in education?," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 75(1), pages 31-37, March.
    2. Griliches, Zvi & Mason, William M, 1972. "Education, Income, and Ability," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 80(3), pages 74-103, Part II, .
    3. Carneiro, Pedro & Heckman, James J., 2003. "Human Capital Policy," IZA Discussion Papers 821, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    4. Blackburn, McKinley L & Neumark, David, 1993. "Omitted-Ability Bias and the Increase in the Return to Schooling," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 11(3), pages 521-544, July.
    5. Koenker, Roger W & Bassett, Gilbert, Jr, 1978. "Regression Quantiles," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 46(1), pages 33-50, January.
    6. Melissa Osborne & Herbert Gintis & Samuel Bowles, 2001. "The Determinants of Earnings: A Behavioral Approach," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 39(4), pages 1137-1176, December.
    7. Orley Ashenfelter & Cecilia Rouse, 1998. "Income, Schooling, and Ability: Evidence from a New Sample of Identical Twins," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 113(1), pages 253-284.
    8. Colm Harmon & Hessel Oosterbeek & Ian Walker, 2003. "The Returns to Education: Microeconomics," Journal of Economic Surveys, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 17(2), pages 115-156, April.
    9. John Cawley & James Heckman & Edward Vytlacil, 1998. "Understanding the Role of Cognitive Ability in Accounting for the Recent Rise in the Economic Return to Education," NBER Working Papers 6388, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    More about this item


    Earnings; Education; Ability; Education; Ability; Wages--Effect of education on;

    JEL classification:

    • J31 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - Wage Level and Structure; Wage Differentials


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