Working Paper: Does Compulsory Schooling Affect Innovation? Evidence from the United States
ID 5310531 © Carl Keyes |

Working Paper

Working Paper: Does Compulsory Schooling Affect Innovation? Evidence from the United States

We consider how the initial adoption of compulsory schooling affected state-level rates of patenting and real output per worker, finding declines in both once the originally affected cohorts reach middle age.


U.S. states adopted compulsory schooling laws between 1852 and 1929. Compulsory schooling laws increase the number of completed years of schooling, which could lead to social benefits such as increases in workforce productivity and technological innovation. In theory, additional schooling could lead to a more educated populace that possesses the skills that lead to more inventions and technological innovation. However, the historical impetus around compulsory schooling included a well-meaning desire to assimilate diverse populations and to control children’s educations. It is possible that a more homogenous and regimented system of schooling could dampen entrepreneurial and innovative thinking relative to less structured forms of education. To our knowledge, this is the first study to empirically test the historical relationship between state-level compulsory schooling laws and measures of innovation and entrepreneurship such as the number of patents per capita and output per worker. Our results suggest that the adoption of compulsory schooling in the U.S. reduced patents per capita and output per worker over time.


The late 19th century witnessed most U.S. states adopting their first compulsory schooling law mandating school attendance by children. By the end of 1929, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had compulsory education laws in place. Proponents of these laws argued for schools that were more broadly available to students regardless of social class (Katz ,1976).

Public schools also offered a way to assimilate newly arrived immigrants to the predominant culture (Dewey, 1916; Katz, 1976; Mann, 1855; Rush, 1786) and to allow children with negligent parents to receive an education (Taylor, 2010). More recent education scholars similarly argue that public schooling is necessary to teach children how to become good citizens (Gutmann, 1999; Saltman, 2000).

We consider how these initial compulsory schooling laws affect innovation. The effect of compulsory schooling on innovation is theoretically ambiguous. Educational attainment tends to be positively associated with measures of innovation (Akcigit, Grigsby, & Nicholas, 2017a); compulsory schooling increases some groups’ educational attainment, which could potentially increase their innovation. On the other hand, changing schooling from voluntary to compulsory may change the nature of schooling, affecting innovation (see, for example, the arguments in Gatto, 2000; 2002).

Compulsory schooling laws could also change the structure of education by reducing the proportion of children being educated in the home. Increases in conventional schooling could lead to reductions in academic and social outcomes if children were receiving meaningful educations in their homes. Although much of the empirical evidence on the subject has limited internal validity, the literature suggests that homeschooled children tend to fare better academically and socially than their otherwise similar peers in public schools (Burke, 2019; Cogan, 2010; Hamlin, 2019; Medlin, 2013; Ray, 2017).
Potential social benefits of compulsory public education include a more educated populace, positive socialization, and more civic knowledge (Gutmann, 1999). However, it is also possible that particular types of schooling lead to a less-educated populace and more obedience relative to alternative forms of education such as homeschooling or private schooling (DeAngelis, 2019). More obedience could be viewed as a social benefit since it could lead to less crime, but obedience could also be viewed as a social cost if it reduces creativity and innovation (DeAngelis, 2018; Glenn, 1988). The traditional schooling model could also have differing effects on cognitive skills such as reading comprehension and noncognitive skills such as creativity and effort (DeAngelis, 2019; Kim, 2011). Lleras-Muney and Shertzer (2015) find that English-only laws and compulsory schooling laws had no detectable effect on the socialization of immigrants; their results imply that compulsory schooling may be limited in its ability to change cultural attitudes.

We empirically test the relationship between schooling and innovation by using the number of patents per capita by state as a proxy for innovation. We estimate declines in patenting that begin around the prime patenting years (ages 36 to 55) of the first cohorts affected. We also consider the effect of compulsory schooling laws on real output per work as a measure of productivity.

Does Compulsory Schooling Affect Innovation? Evidence from the United States

Corey A. DeAngelis is the director of school choice at Reason Foundation.