Are States with Better Educated Legislatures Better Governed?

That depends on how you define “better governed.” If, for simplicity’s sake, you measure the quality of governance by fiscal solvency (or more aptly the lack thereof), then the answer appears to be no. Of course, these are strange times; forty-two states have a combined fiscal deficit of more than $100 billion, so maybe the data’s a bit skewed. Still, comparing a Chronicle of Higher Education report on the collective education level of each state’s legislature, to’s list of state budget deficits from March seems worthwhile. And the results don’t exactly make the case for education being a good predictor of fiscal competence.

The graph below plots the education of state legislatures on the x-axis, defined as the percentage of members with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and the fiscal budget deficit as a percentage of 2011 spending on the y. California has the most educated legislature in the country, with 89.9% of members having bachelor’s degrees or higher. They’re also looking down the barrel of a $25.4 billion budget deficit, tops in the country. On a per-spending basis though, California’s budget deficit slips to fourth, behind Nevada, New Jersey and Texas.

(If the graph doesn’t work for you, click the interact button, then click the top bar, “State Budget and Education Level Freakonomics Chart.” On the Many Eyes page, then click the “full image” icon.)

Of the five states with the highest education levels, only Virginia and Nebraska fall out of the top ten for budget deficits.Virginia ranks second for education level, but falls all the way to 20th on the budget deficit scale. Nebraska scores even better, with the third highest education level and 29th worst budget deficit. Meanwhile, states that aren’t in the red, (North Dakota,Wyoming, Montana), have bachelor degree levels that hover somewhere in the 60% area. We are by no means presuming causality between low education and balanced budgets, or for that matter, that education causes legislators to run big deficits. There’s far too much that goes into a state’s fiscal equation. So, read into this what you will. But we thought it made for a fun comparison.


That's because politics is a contest among people educated beyond their intellegence

Eric M. Jones.


Try spelling "intelligence" correctly and putting a "." at the end of the sentence.


The data are misleading For example, Texas started 2011 with a projected $27B shortfall, but as required by the constitution ended with a balanced budget (and cash left in the rainy day fund). The $13.4B reported on Stateline was as of March, when the legislature was still in session.

So the concept of the comparison is good, but the untimely underlying data cover up any meaningful conclusions.


When it comes to people's beliefs about factual statements relevant to (say) social policy, we do know through studies that increased education is correlated, not to increased accuracy, but to increased polarization. One could make a strong case for polarization and political entrenchment* being responsible for many of the governmental budgetary problems in the US today.

*by the _other_ side of the aisle, naturally!

Mark Wolfinger

Are you truly equating right wing conservative fiscal policy with 'better governed'?

More intelligent legislators know when to run a deficit, when to balance budgets.


If you'd left just that first sentence, thumbs up. With just the second sentence, thumbs down. With both, I'm conflicted.

A Notherl

Wait a minute. Who's electing all these legislators with only high school diplomas, GEDs, associate's degrees, or "some college?!" (Maybe I am too optimistic in discounting the possibility that some of these legislators lack even a GED.) Is that not a fair criticism? Not that a bachelor's degree is, per se, worthwhile or indicative of competence to govern. But they're pretty ubiquitous, and you'd think a college degree would be a de facto prerequisite for running a state, considering all the other jobs for which one is required.


Does the population of the state matter in this analysis?


Shouldn't the historical level of education be considered? Some deficits could be caused by decisions made years ago.


..and by constitutional amendments due to referenda


It's tempting to imagine that there might be a relationship, not simply to education, but to what field that education was in. So a person educated in say engineering might have a better grasp of fiscal reality than someone with a degree in English lit.


I was thinking the same thing except for the engineering bit. I have a degree in engineering and don't think I'd be in and shape or form qualified to tackle the state budget crisis.


This data seems wrong. Virginia had a budget *surplus* of $311M for 2011.


I believe the study on the education levels of legislatures was flawed. They showed many state representatives from Arkansas as having no formal education beyond high school when several of them were practicing attorneys with law degrees.


You can be a practicing attorney and NOT have a law degree. You can earn the right to sit the bar by completing an apprenticeship.

It's also quite common for Universities to bestow honory degrees upon people who they believe have earned one through acutal work experience.

Just pointing that out since I don't know if you believed that any lawyer had to have earned an degree before practicing (since it's a common assumption).


I just cannot get over how Right wing this blog has become. Why in the world would budget be the greatest factor in considering how well a state is governed? Here are other measures that might make a little more sense: Unemployment Rate, Percentage Homeless, Percentage of Citizens in Prison, State "GDP", Citizen Approval Rating, anything else in the world.

Also, I recommend that this piece's title is updated to Are States with Worse Educated Legislatures Republican?


Worse Educated? Really?


Several questions. First, is there actually someone out there advancing the notion that the education level of legislatures is connected to "better governing?"

Second, shouldn't a blog by a leading economist avoid using analysis that implies monocausality? Shouldn't said economist instead recognize that many different factors affect state politics, such as severe recessions, and fiscal straitjackets imposed by idiotic initiatives (like Prop 13 and its successors in CA)?

Third, shouldn't "better governing" be defined as more than just avoiding a deficit, especially in the middle of a severe recession?


Holy smokes! Did everyone quit reading once you got to the chart? They explicitly state in their concluding remarks that this is not an indication of causality -one way or the other- but simply a fun exercise. Its a blog topic not a freaking journal article.


Duh. Academia is dominated by liberal-spending liberals; that's well-documented. Of course the more "formal education" a person gets, the more likely they are to lean left, and spend what's left.

On the other hand, people who live in the REAL world understand that every dollar of "government spending" equals a dollar of "citizen income-confiscation."

It's common sense, people!