More Pay for Taking a Course? NO

In a session that left many liberals furious, the North Carolina General Assembly repealed a law that granted teachers an automatic ten percent pay increase if they completed a master’s degree. That move has led to a lot of hand-wringing.

In a piece about this story on Inside Higher Ed, writer Kevin Kiley noted that a four-semester degree program at East Carolina University would cost roughly $26,000, then added, “But, according to the North Carolina state legislature, that doesn’t mean it’s worth anything.”

That’s correct. Merely because something has costs does not necessarily mean that it has or imparts any value. It’s long overdue for Americans to abandon the idea that there is any automatic connection between how much we spend on educational programs and how beneficial they are. The folly of extra pay just for obtaining an education MA is a great place to start.

Fortunately, this is one of those rare issues where the right and the left are in agreement.

The “progressive’ Center for American Progress published a study in 2012 finding that teachers who have earned master’s degrees “are no more effective, on average, than their counterparts without master’s degrees.” According to the data the authors cite, spending on “master’s bumps” rose by 72 percent from just the short period from the 2003-04 school year to the 2007-08 school year.

Undoubtedly, the Center for American Progress and I would disagree on how better to use that money, but we see eye to eye on the folly of guaranteeing teachers a pay increase merely for passing enough courses (and generally undemanding ones) to get another degree.

Saving the taxpayers some money naturally involves a loss of revenue for the colleges and universities that sell those credentials. East Carolina’s education school is a cash cow, enrolling about 1,100 students in its master’s programs – compared with a total of 2,000 undergraduates.

A lot of faculty and administrative jobs have grown up around the steady flow of teachers seeking their income-bumping degrees. Without that government subsidy, the school’s numbers will shrink significantly. Put to the test of the market, educational master’s degrees will mostly fail.

Laws that ensure automatic raises for teachers who get another degree is part of the wider phenomenon of rent-seeking by educational interests. Knowing that most politicians find it hard to say “no” to anything that’s claimed to improve education, schools, colleges and universities have lobbied for a host of laws and regulations that improve their bottom lines.

We see that, for example, in occupational licensing that compels anyone who wants to work in a field to undergo governmentally approved training whether or not it really improves the worker’s needed skill. Cases like that are legion, such as the requirement in Nevada that you have to put in 700 hours of cosmetology training before you can teach anyone how to apply makeup. (Read about it here.)

Perhaps the most costly bit of educational rent-seeking ever is the requirement in almost every state that before you can take the bar exam, you must earn a degree from an accredited law school.  Most lawyers will tell you that law school is largely wasted time, as Harvard Law grad Hans Bader does here.

The law’s requirement that you must earn a JD before you can take the bar exam guarantees a huge inflow of customers for law schools. Many law school professors would be looking for other work if that weren’t the case.

The silver bullet that would knock out all of this educational rent seeking is to evaluate people on the basis of competence, not on the basis of how many courses they have managed to get through. I’m glad that North Carolina has taken a small step in that direction.

George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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