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Horace Mann.
Horace Mann.

Massachusetts is a rich state because it’s full of smart people.

What the state lacks in oil reserves, coal mines, and other natural resources, it makes up for with high-performing schools and a well-educated workforce.

In recent decades, this formula has worked remarkably well, with Massachusetts residents enjoying some of the largest economic gains of any state in the country (per capita).

Yet nearly 20 years have passed since Massachusetts made any substantial new investments in education — be it early education, K-12, or public colleges and universities. And unless the state can find a way to expand the ranks of college grads, our education-fueled economy might eventually begin to sputter.

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Is Massachusetts’ economic growth really about smarts?

To a large degree, yes.

Economists don’t call it smarts. Instead they talk about “human capital,” which refers to the skills, knowledge, and economic potential of workers.

That’s hard to measure directly, but you can get a fair approximation of human capital by looking at schooling and standardized tests results — two areas where Massachusetts stands out.

Massachusetts workers have more school experience than any other cohort in the country, not to mention consistently high test scores. And this advantage in human capital has contributed mightily to the state’s economic success.

A recent working paper from economists at the Hoover Institution and the University of Munich found that about 40 percent of the state’s unusually high per capita economic growth could be chalked up to education. And looking across the country, they estimate that somewhere between a quarter and a third of the difference between rich and poor states comes down to education.

How did Massachusetts get so smart?

A combination of recent policy and long history.

As far back as the 1840s, the legendary education reformer Horace Mann saw that Massachusetts had no choice but to make its fortune with brainpower. As he put it: “Having no other mines to work, Massachusetts has mined into the human intellect; and, from its limitless resources, she has won more sustaining and enduring prosperity and happiness than if she had been founded on a stratification of silver and gold, reaching deeper down than geology has yet penetrated.”

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Mann reserved his highest praise for Massachusetts’ public schools, but you can also think of the state’s inveterate role as a hub of American higher education — now home to more than 100 colleges and universities.

Long history aside, recent years have brought a more deliberate kind of educational innovation, part of an effort to help Massachusetts transition from a 19th-century industrial economy to a 21st-century knowledge economy.

At the center of this effort was the 1993 education reform law, which not only created the MCAS standardized testing but greatly increased the amount of money available to poorer school districts, spreading economic opportunity around the state and solidifying Massachusetts’ place as a leading light of US education.

Will we always be smart?

The real challenge isn’t to stay smart. It’s to get smarter.

Already, high school graduation rates are above 85 percent, test scores are consistently among the highest in the nation, and the average adult has nearly 14 years of schooling.

Simply maintaining such educational advantages would be difficult. Expanding on them is a historic challenge.

So what’s the plan to make Massachusetts smarter and ensure that we can continue to benefit from outsized economic growth?

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Perhaps the biggest education reform currently underway is the switch from one standardized test, MCAS, to another, PARCC. The PARCC exam is specifically tailored for college preparedness, but unlike the 1993 education reform law, these higher testing standards aren’t being matched by higher funding.

Not that public funding is always the answer. But it has often been part of the answer. Consider any of the following approaches:

■  The research on charter schools has gotten clearer: They do seem to help students. But since charter schools are independent public schools, any major expansion would likely require some new state spending, at least in the near term.

■  The University of Massachusetts Amherst actually outperforms its private-school partners among the “five colleges” when it comes to getting graduates into decent-paying jobs, according to data released this week by the federal government. But the school’s students actually take on more debt. So if the state wants to give more students a shot at college, without overloading them with debt, it probably needs to reverse the cuts to higher education put in place over the last decade.

■  High-quality early education has been shown to improve high school graduation and college attendance rates, but a robust, statewide early-education program could cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year — which the state doesn’t have and doesn’t seem willing to raise.

The big picture is clear. Massachusetts’ economy runs on smarts. So anything we can do to boost educational outcomes and expand the ranks of college grads is likely to come back in the form of future economic gains.

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Doing little, or nothing, means we’ll miss out.

Evan Horowitz can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.