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Higher Learning, Greater Good

, 432 pages

18 line drawings

February 2009



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Higher Learning, Greater Good

The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education

Winner, Best Book in Education, 2009 PROSE Awards, Professional and Scholarly Publishing division of the Association of American Publishers


Winner, Best Book in Education, PROSE Awards, Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division, Association of American Publishers

A college education has long been acknowledged as essential for both personal success and economic growth. But the measurable value of its nonmonetary benefits has until now been poorly understood. In Higher Learning, Greater Good, leading education economist Walter W. McMahon carefully describes these benefits and suggests that higher education accrues significant social and private benefits.

McMahon's research uncovers a major skill deficit and college premium in the United States and other OECD countries due to technical change and globalization, which, according to a new preface to the 2017 edition, continues unabated. A college degree brings better job opportunities, higher earnings, and even improved health and longevity. Higher education also promotes democracy and sustainable growth and contributes to reduced crime and lower state welfare and prison costs. These social benefits are substantial in relation to the costs of a college education.

Offering a human capital perspective on these and other higher education policy issues, McMahon suggests that poor understanding of the value of nonmarket benefits leads to private underinvestment. He offers policy options that can enable state and federal governments to increase investment in higher education.

Walter W. McMahon is emeritus professor of economics and emeritus professor of education at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He is the author of Education and Development: Measuring the Social Benefits.

"An important contribution that not only provides a diagnosis of the main problems facing US higher education but also offers some solutions."

"McMahon has written a serious and important book on the economics of higher education... This book is a must-read for students interested in the economics of higher education and should be included as a required reading in such courses... McMahon's extension and revitalization of human capital theory in higher education should be of interest to a general readership in the field."

"This extraordinary book patiently, thoughtfully, and thoroughly provides the conceptual framework for understanding the higher education market, the empirical findings about what that market produces and the policy prescriptions needed to make it work better in the future."

"No one else before McMahon has systematically and comprehensively presented the whole picture of higher education benefits and provided a valuation of the private and social non-market benefits."

"This is a significant contribution to both theory and research findings in the study of investment in higher education... Highly recommended."

"The overwhelming success of this work is that McMahon has articulated clearly and succinctly what students, their families, and governments are getting for their investment in higher education."

"A timely and insightful text... Academic advisors who want to show their students that a college degree offers benefits beyond starting salaries and career opportunities will find this book to be a valuable resource."

"It is not surprising that there is a growing interest in the private and social benefits of higher education and discussion of who should pay for what. Professor McMahon’s book... is central to this debate."

"The first book to systematically identify and develop the evidence necessary to measure comprehensively the benefits of higher education and to estimate their economic value."

"Walt McMahon's Higher Learning, Greater Good is an important book made even more so by the current economic crisis. This insightful volume derives from a lifetime of scholarly exploration and arrives at a time when a clear understanding of the economic benefits of higher education has never been more crucial. Through his analysis of the market and non-market returns on higher education, McMahon makes clear the chronic underinvestment in higher education and the serious ramifications for both individuals and society. Higher Learning, Greater Good is a detailed and thoughtful contribution to education and policy debates that deserves a careful reading by all who care about the future."

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