COVID learning loss will decrease students' lifetime earnings, Stanford economist argues

A study by a Stanford economist estimates ‘that the average student during the pandemic will have 5.6 percent lower lifetime earnings.’

The study attributes some of the learning losses to the school closures that began in March 2020.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a new study from a Stanford University economist showing the economic impact of COVID-19 pandemic learning losses. 

“The United States rewards skills more than almost all other developed countries,” the study reads. “The evidence on the labor market value of skills implies that the average student during the pandemic will have 5.6 percent lower lifetime earnings.”

Because of the loss in skills, the study says, “the states themselves are estimated to face a gross domestic product (GDP) that is 0.6 to 2.9 percent lower each year for the remainder of the twenty-first century.”

The difference in lifetime earnings for the average student educated just before versus after the pandemic equates to $70,000, according to The Wall Street Journal

The study’s author, Eric A. Hanushek, is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, “a public policy think tank” that “promote[s] economic opportunity and prosperity.” Hanushek “is internationally recognized for his economic analysis of educational issues,” according to his Hoover Institution biography

Hanushek’s study used test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which a description from the NAEP website calls “The Nation’s Report Card.” Because standardized testing differs from state to state, NAEP “provid[es] educators, policymakers, and parents with a common measure of student achievement that allows for direct comparisons among states and participating urban districts.” 

NAEP is a “congressionally mandated project” of a U.S. Department of Education program, according to the description. 

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For Hanushek’s study, he looked at eighth grade NAEP results “because this performance links directly to the economic analyses that provide information on the future costs to individuals and the economy.” 

“Looking across the nation, the average score for eighth-grade math fell for every state, with a national average decline of eight NAEP scale score points,” the study reads. “This was enough to erase all of the gains that had occurred since 2000.”

The study says that eighth grade reading scores declined by three points on average. 

Hanushek attributes some of the learning losses to the school closures that began in March 2020. 

“In the subsequent school year there were varying responses ranging from full return to in-class instruction to full use of different ways to deliver remote instruction,” the study reads. 

“A number of hybrid approaches that mixed some in-class with some remote instruction also emerged. In each case, the quality of schooling showed large variations due to the different choices made about technology, implementation strategy, and curricular integrity.”

Hanushek spoke to Campus Reform about the similarities between learning losses in K-12 and higher education. 

“We don’t have any good data on losses in higher education, but I would guess there were similar findings,” Hanushek told Campus Reform.  

“Some colleges were obviously better at dealing with remote instruction than others, and similarly for individual faculty members. We do know, however, that the average student going to college after the pandemic will be less well prepared than students before the pandemic.”

Campus Reform asked Hanushek how schools should have delivered instruction to students. 

“I don’t think that there is any simple answer about pre-vaccine policies, because it is a clear trade-off of health for learning,” Hanushek said. “But, I think post-vaccines the answer was to work hard at returning to in-class instruction. I think we are finding that in-person is generally superior to hybrid that is generally superior to fully remote.”

Campus Reform has similarly reported on the efficacy of online learning, which colleges and universities relied on during the pandemic. 

As “different colleges and universities across the nation” started the spring 2022 semester online, one report cited a University of Florida professor whose analysis “suggest[ed] that any move to online education should be cautiously approached.”

“Justin Ortagus, Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration & Policy,” wrote, “‘Online education can open doors that were once closed for many non-traditional students.’”

Ortagus continued to argue that “‘broad access to poorly designed online courses will exacerbate achievement gaps and undermine the fundamental promise of higher education.’”

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Additionally, Campus Reform reported on changing academic standards introduced by instructors during the pandemic. 

In the spring 2022 semester, nearly half of all instructors in Boston University’s writing program used “‘contract grading,’” an approach that “‘typically involves minimum expectations for students to earn a final course grade,’” according to Campus Reform

Campus Reform reported that “‘contract grading’” belongs to the “‘ungrading’ movement, which gained popularity during the pandemic.” Professors who follow the movement assign grades using methods such as “labor and competency” rather than performance. 

Campus Reform contacted the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This article will be updated accordingly.