Becker himself highlighted research findings that one quarter of the rise in per-person incomes from 1929 to 1982 in America was because of increases in schooling.
Much of the rest, he insisted, was a result of harder-to-measure gains in human capital such as on-the-job training and better health.
He was also fond of pointing to the success of Asian economies such as South Korea and Taiwan, endowed with few natural resources other than their populations, as proof of the value of investing in human capital—and in particular of building up education systems.
Becker's original analysis focused on the private benefits to students, but economists who followed in his footsteps expanded their field of study to include the broader social gains from having well-educated populations.
The importance of human capital is now taken for granted.
What is more controversial is the question of how to cultivate it.
For those inclined to support a bigger state, one interpretation of Becker's analysis is that the government ought to pour money into education and make it widely available at a low cost.
For a conservative, the conclusion might be that the private gains from education are so big that students should bear the costs of tuition.
Although Becker's academic writings rarely strayed into policy prescriptions, his popular writings—a monthly Businessweek column that began in the 1980s and blog posts in later years—offer a measure of his views.
For starters, he talked of “bad inequality” but also “good inequality”, an unfashionable idea today.
Higher earnings for scientists, doctors and computer programmers help motivate students to tackle these difficult subjects, in the process pushing knowledge forward; from this perspective, inequality contributes to human capital.
But when inequality gets too extreme, the schooling and even the health of children from poor families suffer, with their parents unable adequately to provide for them.
Inequality of this sort depresses human capital, leaving society worse off.
As for the debate about whether government-funded universities should raise tuition fees, Becker thought that only fair, given that their graduates could expect higher lifetime earnings.
Rather than subsidising students who go on to become bankers or lawyers, he argued that it would be more productive for the government to fund research and development.