Does formal education make you smarter? It’s a question that many people actually assume an answer to, namely that of course it does! It’s why we have schools and formal education, right? It’s why we go on to get various degrees, right? Eh… Not so fast. Although people have often assumed that the more you formally educate yourself, the smarter you become, not everyone has agreed. Ask any homeschooling or unschooling family and they’ll tell you that formal education may not be the be all and end all.
Previous research on the topic has found it difficult to disentangle the reasons behind the strong correlation that is often found between number of years of formal education and generalized, cognitive ability. Whereas many researchers believe the effect to be causal thanks to studies that included earlier IQ as a confound (e.g., ), others believe it isn’t quite so clear cut.
One of the problems with assuming that only including early IQ as a confound is that by not randomizing how much education one receives, there can be a reverse causality or confound. That means that individuals who tend to have lower IQs may simply not remain in school as long as those with higher IQs. A second problem is that IQ tests measure a broad range of skills and education may elicit improvements in specific areas (such as specific history knowledge) instead of increasing intelligence more generally speaking. (This highlights a limitation of IQ tests more generally too.)
A new study in Developmental Psychology has tackled this issue. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh used 60 years’ worth of cohort data that included generalized intelligence measures and specific intelligence measures at multiple points across this 60-year-period in order to determine the actual effect of education on intelligence. The earliest IQ measure is at 11 years of age and the authors examined various models that included (a) years of education influencing g (generalized intelligence) which then influenced specific components of intelligence, (b) years of education influencing both g and specific components of intelligence, and (c) years of education only influencing specific omponents of intelligence (along with g, but no relationship between g and years of education).
Although all models had good fit, Model C – the one in which years of education does not influence g – had the best fit and significantly better fit than either A or B. In fact, in this model, years of education only influenced logical memory and digit-symbol substitution. Notably, these results held over multiple different tests that assessed possible statistical reasons for Model C’s superiority. Nothing changed.
What can we take from this research? Well, for starters, the fact that formal education has virtually no bearing on general intelligence and, indeed, limited bearing on specific components of intelligence means that the push for more formal education for all people may not be warranted. Not everyone needs to get a university degree and indeed, other career paths may be a better investment of time and energy for some individuals. Second, individuals looking to homeschool or unschool would not seem to be putting their children at any disadvantage intellectually. Governments that consider these methods of schooling problematic will need to make sure they have reasons that stand up to the scrutiny as there is limited support for any problem from an intellectual perspective. Finally, it may raise questions about what education is providing. Is it a cultural institution? Is it helpful for our particular society? If so, how? If the goal of education is to increase the intellect of the citizens, then the education system may need to be overhauled.
What doesn’t this research tell us? The research doesn’t inform on early schooling experiences (which is often when things like homeschooling take place). The earliest assessment of IQ was at age 11 and thus the effect of anything prior is unknown. Although this age was fitting for the research herein (IQ is quite stable across development from this age onward), the fact that IQ can be malleable earlier would suggest a role for intellectual stimulation that schools may provide. (In full disclosure, we plan on homeschooling my daughter so clearly I don’t believe that formal education is necessary for intellectual stimulation though clearly good schools provide great stimulation for children who work well in that environment. Furthermore, depending on how homeschooling is done, it may not provide much intellectual stimulation at all. It’s situation dependent.)
The question that remains is whether or not that stimulation comes from formal education or other life experiences or a combination thereof. The research also cannot speak to the effects of specific areas of education. That is, it may be that getting a medical degree does increase your overall intelligence whereas another field may not. Even in high school, it may depend greatly on the classes taken and the amount of work put into learning in these classes.
What’s the take-home message? Unfortunately, all the research can really tell us is that, very generally speaking, formal education does increase the general intellect of those in it. It can serve a very important purpose of preparing us for certain career paths, but we should also remember that it may not be the only way to do this. When looking at education, parents should look at the individual circumstances of their children and schools to decide what is best for their child. Just don’t expect school to make your kid smarter.
To read up on education and success, check out these books:
 Falsh T, Massih SS. The effect of education on cognitive ability. Economic Inquiry 2011; 49: 838-56.
 Ceci SJ. How much does schooling influence general intelligence and its cognitive components? A reassessment of the evidence. Developmental Psychology 1991; 27: 703-22.
 Cliffordson C, Gustafsson J-E. Effects of age and schooling on intellectual performance: Estimates obtained from analysis of continuous variation of age and length of schooling. Intelligence 2008; 36: 143-52.
 Richie SJ, Bates TC, Deary IJ. Is education associated with improvements in general cognitive ability, or in specific skills? Developmental Psychology 2015; 51: 573-82.
 Tucker-Drob EM, Briley DA. Continuity of genetic and environmental influences on cognition across the life span: A meta-analysis of longitudinal twin and adoption studies. Psychological Bulletin 2014; 140: 949-79.