PARIS – Education is undoubtedly a critical driver of economic growth and social mobility. But efforts to expand access to education have typically focused on the primary level, while neglecting tertiary schooling. And initiatives that have emphasized post-secondary learning have placed relatively little emphasis on educational quality. This has to change.
The influence of higher education on social mobility is particularly pronounced in low-income countries, where the scarcity of skilled human capital gives tertiary-educated workers a significant wage premium. The problem is that many of these countries lack high-quality institutions of higher education, leaving even university graduates at a disadvantage within an increasingly interconnected global economy.
This is where study abroad programs can help. Sending students to high-quality foreign institutions can help to advance a country’s international integration, including into global knowledge networks, as it has for many countries in Asia and the Middle East.
The advantages become even greater at the world’s elite universities. In the United States, roughly 54% of corporate leaders and 42% of government officials are graduates of just 12 institutions, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford – meaning that the friendships and associations formed at such universities ultimately shape the global economy, the political system, and public opinion.
For low-income countries, however, these elite networks remain largely inaccessible. While countries like the US and the United Kingdom have been working to provide disadvantaged communities with greater access to their elite institutions, such efforts typically do not extend beyond national borders. With even their most highly educated professionals marginalized internationally, it is no wonder that low-income countries struggle to integrate into global systems.
High-quality institutions of higher education are largely concentrated in a few countries in Europe, North America, and Japan – the very countries that offer the most study-abroad opportunities. In 2009, 72% of foreign students in the European Union came from other EU countries.
While many developing-country citizens receive education and training abroad – 53% of all international students are Asian and 12% are African – only a small minority end up at elite universities. And the lower a country’s income, the fewer the opportunities. Nigeria and Pakistan each send twice as many students to study in OECD countries as Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Malawi combined.
A recent World Economic Forum book (a chapter of which I co-authored) identifies more equal access to quality education as one of the principal challenges facing policymakers, owing largely to the educational, financial, and social advantages that make rich-country students better equipped for – and more appealing to – elite universities. Efforts to equalize access often entail shifting resources from one group to another, thereby spawning new imbalances.
Lower-income countries need new financing models for supporting education that account for social-capital gains, which amount to an added return on investment. For example, recent research from Chile has shown that graduates of elite universities tend to marry one another, and university graduates – especially women – are more likely to marry partners of similar or higher social status. Often, they also socialize with other graduates of elite universities within exclusive clubs and associations.
The exact impact that improved access to elite universities would have on low-income countries and communities remains unknown, owing largely to how few of their students study abroad. Of course, many middle- and high-income countries – including China, India, South Korea, and Lebanon – have benefited tremendously from sending their students to top universities in Europe and the US. But they owe much to their substantial diaspora populations in the West, as well as to their elites’ international connections.
What is needed is a funding mechanism – supported by the private sector, as part of its corporate social responsibility activities – to boost the number of students from low-income countries enrolling in the world’s elite universities. Such a mechanism could, for example, finance the establishment of special schools and training programs to help students meet such universities’ admission requirements.
Moreover, to enable students to cover tuition fees, while encouraging them to return to their home countries once they have completed their studies, they could be offered loans with interest rates that fluctuate in line with how long they remain abroad after graduation. Students who return after a year or two would pay nominal rates, whereas those who remain outside of their home country for prolonged periods could face very high – even prohibitive – rates.
The relationships that are formed at high-quality institutions of higher education are among the most influential in the world. As long as low-income countries are excluded from these world-shaping social circles, they will remain unable to attract the resources they need to improve their international position and enhance their contribution to the global economy.