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The Trouble with Universal Education

COPENHAGEN – With the deadline for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals fast approaching, the world is gearing up to establish a new set of goals for the next 15 years. Given limited resources, policymakers and international organizations must ask themselves: Where can we do the most good? Should a larger share of the $2.5 trillion that will be directed toward development aid over that period, and of developing-country budgets, be directed toward health, the environment, food, water, or education?

With these questions in mind, the Copenhagen Consensus (which I direct) asked some of the world’s top economists to assess the economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of many different targets. Education for all was among the goals that were assessed.

The importance of education is indisputable. The problem is that the international community’s credibility in promising universal education has been compromised; it has pledged to achieve this goal in at least 12 UN-sponsored declarations since 1950. For example, UNESCO promised in 1961 that, by 1980, primary education in Africa would be “universal, compulsory, and free.” Yet, when the time came, about half of primary-school-aged children in Africa were still not attending school.

When target dates pass, the goals are simply reformulated on a new timeline, and more money is thrown at the problem, with little consideration of how, exactly, it should be spent. And, in fact, the goal of ensuring primary and secondary education for all could well end up costing more than the entire global aid budget for education.

With 60 million children still out of school, the international community should not simply postpone the same universal-education target until 2030. Instead, it is time to abandon this unrealistic goal in favor of an achievable, targeted, and cost-effective approach.

As the economist George Psacharopoulos recommended in a recent paper, the highest priority should be what works best: early education, especially preschool. The most obvious reasons why earlier education makes for a better starting point is that people are most receptive to knowledge when they are young. Moreover, at younger ages, there are fewer cultural barriers to education for girls, and there is less pressure for children to contribute labor. Finally, preschool education is less expensive to deliver than higher-level schooling.

The longer-term effects of early learning are less apparent but more profound. Though students who attended preschool do not perform better than their peers in primary school, they do tend to earn more as adults. This suggests that preschool provides a qualitative boost to children’s social skills or emotional development that enables them to take better advantage of economic opportunity later in life.

Of course, the precise return on investment in expanded preschool education is difficult to discern. But, in order to prioritize development targets – within and outside of the realm of education – estimates must be made.

First, there is the straightforward work of adding up the costs of education, such as teacher training and compensation, school construction and maintenance, and even the opportunity cost of child labor. Then there is the more ambiguous process of assessing the benefits, which, though difficult to quantify, are convincing enough that many economists champion early education.

Based on the most extensive data available, Psacharopoulos determined that the most effective target would be to halve the proportion of children who are not attending preschool in Sub-Saharan Africa, which would yield social and economic benefits of $33 per dollar spent. This goal, which focuses on a single challenge-plagued region, may seem modest; but it is also realistic and achievable – and the potential returns are massive.

As targets become more ambitious, they lose their impact. For example, the pursuit of universal primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa would yield a lower, but still significant, $7 of social and economic benefit for every dollar spent. And efforts to achieve universal primary education worldwide would cost far more, with each dollar spent bringing just $4 worth of benefits.

The same type of comparison must be made for other important goals, such as improving the quality of education – a surprisingly difficult objective to achieve, as many developed countries have learned from their poor performance in the OECD’s international assessment. While money allocated to, say, reducing class sizes has very little impact, investment in institutional changes – such as the introduction of monitoring and evaluation systems, centrally administered examinations, and incentives for teachers – could result in $3-5 of good per dollar spent.

As for vocational training, the jury is still out. But it has been identified as less profitable than general secondary education, making it an inferior investment option.

Efforts to make university affordable for all are even more problematic. Given that children from wealthier households are more likely to pursue higher education, directing limited public resources, including tax revenues, toward reducing its cost amounts to a subsidy for the wealthy, at the expense of the poor. A better approach would be to introduce tuition fees for the wealthy and scholarships for the poor.

Maximizing the impact of scarce resources on the lives of the world’s poorest people demands tough choices. In an ideal world, universal, high-quality education at all levels would be worth pursuing. But, amid competing demands for basic necessities like health care and potable water, narrower, more cost-effective education targets are essential.

Instead of aiming to improve billions of people’s circumstances slightly – at high cost – with the same promises that have been made since 1950, the international community should aim first to transform the lives of millions of children in Sub-Saharan Africa. This approach, if applied to all of the goals included in the international community’s next development agenda, would ensure that the world of 2030 is a much better place.