The tricky ethics of education information, J-Pal edition

The Roving Bandit discovered this graph produced by J-Pal on cost-effective interventions for education.

That red bar is a result from a RCT in Madagascar which provided families with information on the “returns to education,” resulting in a reasonable increase in attendance (3.5%).

What’s the catch? The study wasn’t actually giving people an accurate measure of the returns to education in Madagascar, it was giving people the average correlation between education and income, job availability.

Why the distinction? Most economists believe that education attainment is highly endogenous – this means that brighter people and those from my advantaged backgrounds are more likely to attend and do well in school. This muddies the waters, as high-ability people are also more likely to earn higher wages.

There have been many, many attempts to control for the sort of characteristics that might bias the effect of education on earnings, but the study cited by J-PAL doesn’t really do this. This means they aren’t presenting people with an accurate estimate of their own gains from further education, but instead giving them a picture of the sort of lives educated people live.

Shouldn’t we be luring people into school anyway, though? Isn’t more education, in general, a good thing? J-Pal’s cost-effectiveness chart assumes this (notice that it assumes education is an end in itself, even though the intervention uses education as a means to further income).

Possibly, but I am dubious about the ethics of boosting people’s underlying demand for education. Providing accurate information on returns would allow them to make informed decisions (i.e. does this really make sense given my situation?), but instead providing them with a rosy picture may be leading them to make decisions that aren’t actually in their own best interest.

Supply-side interventions that lower the cost of attending schooling – pretty much everything to the right of the red bar – are more likely improve outcomes without the implicit deception.