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Assessments in Education  

Hans Henrik Sievertsen

Assessments like standardized tests and teacher evaluations are central elements of educational systems. Assessments affect the behaviour of students, teachers, parents, schools, and policymakers through at least two channels: The information channel and the incentive channel. Students use the information to adjust study effort and to guide their course selection. Schools and teachers use information from assessments to evaluate teaching quality and the effectiveness of the applied methods. Educational programs use information from assessment results to sort students in educational programs and employers use the results as signals of productivity in their hiring decisions. Finally, policymakers use assessments in accountability systems to reward or penalize schools, and parents use information from assessment results to select schools. The incentive channel is a natural consequence of the information channel: Students are incentivized to work hard and do well in assessments to get access to educational programs and jobs. Teachers and schools are incentivized to do well to receive rewards or avoid punishments in accountability systems. The information channel is important for ensuring the most efficient human capital investments: students learn about the returns and costs of effort investments and about their abilities and comparative advantages. Teachers and schools learn about the most effective teaching methods. However, because of the strong incentives linked to assessments, both students and teachers might focus on optimizing assessment results at the cost of learning. Students might for example select tracks that maximize their grades instead of selecting tracks aligned with their interests and comparative advantages. Understanding the implications of assessments for the behaviour of students, parents, teachers, and schools is therefore necessary to achieve the overall goals of the educational system. Because education affects lifetime earnings, health, and well-being and assessments play an important role in individuals’ educational careers, assessments are also important for efficiency and equity across domains. Biases in assessments and the heterogeneity in access to assessments are sources of inequality in education according to gender, origin, and socioeconomic background. Finally, because assessment results also carry important consequences for individuals’ educational opportunities and in the labor market, they are a source of stress and reduced well-being.


Human Capital in a Historical Perspective  

Gabriele Cappelli, Leonardo Ridolfi, and Michelangelo Vasta

Human capital can be defined as the set of knowledge and skills that individuals accumulate over time. These range from basic competences to more sophisticated forms of knowledge (intermediate and upper-tail human capital). All of them entail complex measurement problems in historical perspective as sources are often too scarce, problematic, and unreliable to allow proper measurement. Human capital is usually measured relying on the extensive margin of education or the quantity of education, that is, how many people are able to read or count or how many people have a certain degree of schooling. Less is known about the effective acquisition of skills, for example, the quality of education. Human capital can affect labor productivity and innovative capacity and it is generally regarded as one of the most important determinants of economic growth, figuring prominently in debates on the origin of the Industrial Revolution and the transition from preindustrial to modern economic growth. The determinants of education are several and vary widely over time and across space, including economic, institutional, cultural, and social factors. Historically, the acquisition of skills has deeply changed in nature, passing from the largely decentralized and fragmented systems of the preindustrial period to the 19th-century systems of mass education, where education was more and more universal and free, and the accumulation of skills was largely coordinated by states and other public authorities. In several regards, literature on human capital is still limited. Few efforts, for instance, have been made to harmonize data, integrate them in a comparative and regional perspective, explore the potential of individual-level information, and assess if and to what extent different dimensions of human capital such as technical and higher education have affected long-term patterns in economic growth and development. Other aspects have long been neglected or remain virtually unexplored, such as gender differences in education, the efficiency of education systems and its determinants, and the analysis of human capital in developing countries.


The Role of Incentives for Improving Students’ Motivation and Performance  

Andreas Fidjeland

Although the returns to education can be substantial, many students underperform in school, for example, by not putting in sufficient effort. To mitigate this underinvestment problem, policymakers are often eager to try to motivate students using extrinsic incentives, such as cash payments and merit scholarships, stricter grading standards, and more competitive admission processes. The design, scope, and implementation of such incentive policies with the goal of affecting student motivation and study habits have been a fruitful area of economic research over the last 30 years. However, the evidence on their potency for improving student performance is mixed. In particular, the use of extrinsic incentives often elicit strategic responses from students, resulting in behavior that might improve performance metrics, but are not productive in terms of learning and skill development. Many incentive policies have therefore ended up producing unintended consequences that goes contrary to the policy objective. As incentives are everywhere in any school system, economists should pursue a better understanding of how they affect which outcomes students focus on, the choices they make, and how these effects differ across groups of students. Broadening the scope of outcomes considered when assessing the effects of incentives, in particular a greater focus on what student’s choose not to do, could provide a fruitful foundation for future research.


Education and Economic Growth  

Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann

Economic growth determines the future well-being of society, but finding ways to influence it has eluded many nations. Empirical analysis of differences in growth rates reaches a simple conclusion: long-run growth in gross domestic product (GDP) is largely determined by the skills of a nation’s population. Moreover, the relevant skills can be readily gauged by standardized tests of cognitive achievement. Over the period 1960–2000, three-quarters of the variation in growth of GDP per capita across countries can be accounted for by international measures of math and science skills. The relationship between aggregate cognitive skills, called the knowledge capital of a nation, and the long-run growth rate is extraordinarily strong. There are natural questions about whether the knowledge capital–growth relationship is causal. While it is impossible to provide conclusive proof of causality, the existing evidence makes a strong prima facie case that changing the skills of the population will lead to higher growth rates. If future GDP is projected based on the historical growth relationship, the results indicate that modest efforts to bring all students to minimal levels will produce huge economic gains. Improvements in the quality of schools have strong long-term benefits. The best way to improve the quality of schools is unclear from existing research. On the other hand, a number of developed and developing countries have shown that improvement is possible.


Human Capital Inequality: Empirical Evidence  

Brant Abbott and Giovanni Gallipoli

This article focuses on the distribution of human capital and its implications for the accrual of economic resources to individuals and households. Human capital inequality can be thought of as measuring disparity in the ownership of labor factors of production, which are usually compensated in the form of wage income. Earnings inequality is tightly related to human capital inequality. However, it only measures disparity in payments to labor rather than dispersion in the market value of the underlying stocks of human capital. Hence, measures of earnings dispersion provide a partial and incomplete view of the underlying distribution of productive skills and of the income generated by way of them. Despite its shortcomings, a fairly common way to gauge the distributional implications of human capital inequality is to examine the distribution of labor income. While it is not always obvious what accounts for returns to human capital, an established approach in the empirical literature is to decompose measured earnings into permanent and transitory components. A second approach focuses on the lifetime present value of earnings. Lifetime earnings are, by definition, an ex post measure only observable at the end of an individual’s working lifetime. One limitation of this approach is that it assigns a value based on one of the many possible realizations of human capital returns. Arguably, this ignores the option value associated with alternative, but unobserved, potential earning paths that may be valuable ex ante. Hence, ex post lifetime earnings reflect both the genuine value of human capital and the impact of the particular realization of unpredictable shocks (luck). A different but related measure focuses on the ex ante value of expected lifetime earnings, which differs from ex post (realized) lifetime earnings insofar as they account for the value of yet-to-be-realized payoffs along different potential earning paths. Ex ante expectations reflect how much an individual reasonably anticipates earning over the rest of their life based on their current stock of human capital, averaging over possible realizations of luck and other income shifters that may arise. The discounted value of different potential paths of future earnings can be computed using risk-less or state-dependent discount factors.


The Rationale for Interventions to Foster Child Development  

Samuel Berlinski and Marcos Vera-Hernández

Socioeconomic gradients in health, cognitive, and socioemotional skills start at a very early age. Well-designed policy interventions in the early years can have a great impact in closing these gaps. Advancing this line of research requires a thorough understanding of how households make human capital investment decisions on behalf of their children, what their information set is, and how the market, the environment, and government policies affect them. A framework for this research should describe how children’s skills evolve and how parents make choices about the inputs that model child development, as well as the rationale for government interventions, including both efficiency and equity considerations.


The Economic Implications of Training for Firm Performance  

Pedro S. Martins

A small literature on the relationship between employee training and firm performance is currently emerging. This line of research is particularly promising given the underexplored potential of training to drive productivity, wages, and employment. Until recently, training was regarded as a costly and risky investment because workers may leave their firm after being trained. However, studies on labor and education economics have found that training results in high returns for firms and that the costs of training can be recouped in a relatively short time. These results follow from different econometric identification approaches, including a small but growing number of randomized controlled trials. Moreover, most training is of a general nature and therefore applicable in other firms, which is at odds with the original theory of training but consistent with novel models that emphasize labor market power. There are a number of possibilities for future research, including a better understanding of the heterogeneity and patterns of training contents and formats across firms and workers, the differentiation of the effects of training along such dimensions, the role of labor market competition in driving training, the extent to which the productivity effects of training are shared with employees, the role of labor market institutions (including minimum wage, collective bargaining, and occupational licensing) in the dimensions above, and the firm performance effects of training provided to unemployed job seekers (as opposed to employees). Evaluation of the public training programs developed during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis and new forms of training in the context of the growth of remote work also merit further investigation.


Trade Shocks and Labor-Market Adjustment  

John McLaren

When international trade increases, either because of a country’s lowering its trade barriers, a trade agreement, or productivity surges in a trade partner, the surge of imports can cause dislocation and lowered incomes for workers in the import-competing industry or the surrounding local economy. Trade economists long used static approaches to analyze these effects on workers, assuming either that workers can adjust instantly and costlessly, or (less often) that they cannot adjust at all. In practice, however, workers incur costs to adjust, and the adjustment takes time. An explosion of research, mostly since about 2008, has explored dynamic worker adjustment through change of industry, change of occupation, change of location, change of labor-force participation, adjustment to change in income, and change in marital status or family structure. Some of these studies estimate rich structural models of worker behavior, allowing for such factors as sector-specific or occupation-specific human capital to accrue over time, which can be imperfectly transferable across industries or occupations. Some allow for unobserved heterogeneity across workers, which creates substantial technical challenges. Some allow for life-cycle effects, where adjustment costs vary with age, and others allow adjustment costs to vary by gender. Others simplify the worker’s problem to embed it in a rich general equilibrium framework. Some key results include: (a) Switching either industry or occupation tends to be very costly; usually more than a year’s average wages on average. (b) Given that moving costs change over time and workers are able to time their moves, realized costs are much lower, but the result is gradual adjustment, with a move to a new steady state that typically takes several years. (c) Idiosyncratic shocks to moving costs are quantitatively important, so that otherwise-identical workers often are seen moving in opposite directions at the same time. These shocks create a large role for option value, so that even if real wages in an industry are permanently lowered by a trade shock, a worker initially in that industry can benefit. This softens or reverses estimates of worker losses from, for example, the China shock. (d) Switching costs vary greatly by occupation, and can be very different for blue-collar and white-collar workers, for young and old workers, and for men and women. (e) Simple theories suggest that a shock results in wage overshooting, where the gap in wages between highly affected industries and others opens up and then shrinks over time, but evidence from Brazil shows that at least in some cases the wage differentials widen over time. (f) Some workers adjust through family changes. Evidence from Denmark shows that some women workers hit by import shocks withdraw from the labor market at least temporarily to marry and have children, unlike men. Promising directions at the frontier include more work on longitudinal data; the role of capital adjustment; savings, risk aversion and the adjustment of trade deficits; responses in educational attainment; and much more exploration of the effects on family.


The Early Origins of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States: An Analysis of the Growth of the NAACP  

Daniel Aaronson, Jala Abner, Mark Borgschulte, and Bhashkar Mazumder

A newly digitized panel of county-level branch activity of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is used to describe the potential factors underlying the expansion of political participation in the American South, with a particular emphasis on the short period from the late 1930s through the 1940s. This period has long been recognized for its significant progress in reducing sizable racial gaps in labor market outcomes. But little work in economics has considered the role of political participation in shaping that progress. As the preeminent civil rights organization prior to the 1950s, the NAACP provides a natural lens in which to explore the expansion in political activism during this crucial period. Associative evidence suggests that a few potential channels could be especially worthy of future study, including the role of demographics, increased human capital, expansion in labor demand driven by wartime efforts, reduction in racial violence, latent political activism, and expansions in political and social networks, all of which have been highlighted in a variety of history and social science literatures. However, careful causal empirical work does not currently exist on these factors. Filling in this hole is important for providing compelling evidence on the origins of the 20th century’s most important U.S. political movement, as well as adding to a growing literature in political economy and development economics which examines the role that grassroots activism has played on economic growth and income inequality around the world.


Guilds and the Economy  

Sheilagh Ogilvie

Guilds ruled many European crafts and trades from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Each guild regulated entry to its occupation, requiring any practitioner to become a guild member and then limiting admission to the guild. Guilds intervened in the markets for their members’ products, striving to keep prices high, limit output, suppress competition, and block innovations that might disrupt the status quo. Guilds also acted in input markets, seeking to control access to raw materials, keep wages low, hinder employers from competing for workers, and prevent workers from agitating for better conditions. Guilds treated women particularly severely, usually excluding them from apprenticeship and forbidding any female other than a guild member’s widow from running a workshop. Guilds invested large sums in lobbying governments and political elites to grant, maintain, and extend these privileges. Guilds had the potential to compensate for their cartelistic activities by creating countervailing benefits. Guild quality certification was one possible solution to information asymmetries between producers and consumers, which could have made markets work better. Guild apprenticeship had the potential to solve imperfections in markets for skilled training, and thus to encourage human capital investment. The cartel profits generated by guilds could in theory have encouraged technological innovation by enabling guild masters to appropriate more of the social benefits of their innovations, while guild journeymanship and spatial clustering could diffuse new technical knowledge. A rich scholarship on European guilds makes it possible to assess the degree to which guilds created such benefits, outweighing the harm they caused. After about 1500, guild strength diverged across Europe, declining gradually in Flanders, the Netherlands, and England, surviving in France and Italy, and intensifying across large tracts of Iberia, Scandinavia, and the German-speaking lands. The activities of guilds contributed to variations across Europe in economic performance, urban growth, and inequality. Guilds interacted significantly with both markets and states, which helps explain why European economies diverged in the crucial centuries before industrialization.


The Economics of Early Interventions Aimed at Child Development  

Samuel Berlinski and Marcos Vera-Hernández

A set of policies is at the center of the agenda on early childhood development: parenting programs, childcare regulation and subsidies, cash and in-kind transfers, and parental leave policies. Incentives are embedded in these policies, and households react to them differently. They also have varying effects on child development, both in developed and developing countries. We have learned much about the impact of these policies in the past 20 years. We know that parenting programs can enhance child development, that centre based care might increase female labor force participation and child development, that parental leave policies beyond three months don’t cause improvement in children outcomes, and that the effects of transfers depend much on their design. In this review, we focus on the incentives embedded in these policies, and how they interact with the context and decision makers to understand the heterogeneity of effects and the mechanisms through which these policies work. We conclude by identifying areas of future research.