The Social Costs of Inadequate Education: Research Findings | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

The Social Costs of Inadequate Education: Research Findings

Just about everyone preaches the value of staying in school. But what, exactly, is that value? Find out on October 24th and 25th, at the first annual Teachers College Symposium on Educational Equity. (Register today.)

A preliminary look at work to be presented at the first annual Teachers College Symposium on Educational Equity

Just about everyone preaches the value of staying in school. But what, exactly, is that value?

On October 24 and 25, at the first annual Teachers College Symposium on Educational Equity, a group of 12 leading economists and other social scientists will present some eye-opening answers. For example, one study conservatively estimates that for just one person, the lifetime earnings losses associated with dropping out of high school are $260,000. A high school dropout will contribute just under $100,000 less in lifetime income taxes than someone who has earned a high school diploma. For the current crop of 18-year-olds who will never earn a high school degree, that computes to over $150 billion in aggregate lifetime earnings loss, and roughly $60 billion in lost income tax revenues for society.

"Aggregated over all high school dropouts age 18 to 67, the annual losses in income taxes are likely over $84 billion - enough to fund No Child Left Behind and other programs of the U.S. Department of Education for a year," says the study's author, Cecilia Rouse, Professor of Economics and Public Affairs a the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Titled "The Social Costs of Inadequate Education," the Symposium - to be held at Columbia University's Alfred Lerner Hall - will be the first major event conducted by The Campaign for Educational Equity, launched at TC in June with the goal of working to close the achievement gap between the nation's most advantaged and disadvantaged students. Other studies presented at the landmark two-day event will estimate what it costs society - in terms of lost productivity, lost revenue, lost tax base, increased burden on the criminal justice system, health care system and public assistance, and reduced civic engagement - when students fail to graduate from high school. Some of the presenters will also look at possible interventions that could raise the graduation rate, and provide cost-benefit analyses of implementing those interventions. And in a closing session, Michael A. Rebell, Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, will summarize action proposals culled from the audience during special lunchtime breakout sessions, and then lead an interactive plenary discussion aimed at developing a specific agenda for follow-up action.

"We live in age when it seems that altruistic arguments aren't sufficient to persuade society to invest in educational equity," said Professor Henry Levin, TC's William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, who is chairing the Symposium. "Many people will only be swayed by a sound business case. We believe the research presented at our Symposium will make that case by showing Americans what all of us pay over the long-term when we fail to educate other people's children."

For example, Levin, together with a team of researchers, has evaluated interventions that would improve the rate of high school graduation for black males. He will provide estimates of the cost of implementing such interventions on a national scale and compare those costs with estimated benefits of reduced costs of health care and crime and increased income and taxes.

The other presenters are:

  • Richard Rothstein, Tisch Visiting Professor at Teachers College, former New York Times education columnist, Economic Policy Institute fellow and author of Class and School s . He will present a statistical overview of the extent of educational equity gap and its causes - many of which extend beyond the classroom.
  • Enrico Moretti , University of California at Berkeley. He will attempt to quantify the potential effect on crime rates and crime costs of boosting the number of high school graduates. Taking into account the costs of keeping more students in school through graduation, he finds that cost savings to the criminal justice system associated with increasing graduation rates for male students alone by just one percent would run into the billions of dollars.
  • Irwin Garfinkel , Jane Waldfogel and Brendan Kelly, Columbia University School of Social Work. What is the increased risk of being on public assistance, food stamps or housing assistance that's associated with failure to graduate from high school, and what is the additional cost to taxpayers? Each of these programs costs America roughly $30 billion annually. Working from data that includes the Current Population Survey, the researchers anticipate that - based on preliminary findings - public savings achieved simply by boosting graduation rates could amount to many billions of dollars.
  • Peter Muennig, Columbia School of Public Health: Many studies have shown that increased education is clearly associated with better health and longer life expectancy. Working from several years of data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (produced by the federal Agency for Health Research and Quality), Muennig asks: What does the public pay for increased use of public health facilities and insurance associated with poor education, and what is the cost of the less healthful lifestyles of those who are less well educated?

    "To truly improve the chances of low income children to succeed in school and thus in society, we need interventions that are much broader in scope, addressing home life, health, and school quality. But to do this right, we also have to spend a lot of money, so it's important to know how much we are going to get back in terms of a healthier, more productive, and more socially responsible citizenry," Muennig said.
  • Ronald Ferguson, Harvard / Kennedy School of Government . Ferguson summarizes the major (and often competing) schools of thought about how to reduce the educational equity gap and its costs, providing examples from research about the impact of the different policies. "No single strand of policy or practice stands out head and shoulders above the rest - each major perspective has something to contribute," Ferguson said. "Our biggest challenge is to try to integrate all of these approaches and reduce wasted energy in political battles for the moral high ground."

Other speakers at the Symposium will include Laurie Tisch, Board Chair of The Campaign for Educational Equity, and TC President Arthur Levine. On Wednesday, October 26, a smaller gathering of policymakers, legislators, foundation heads, business leaders and others will review findings from the Symposium - as well as the policy recommendations presented by Rebell - and attempt to fashion a detailed action agenda based on the Symposium's major findings.

"Our goal, as with all aspects of the Campaign, is to make things happen," says Rebell.

For information on how to secure attendance at "The Social Costs of Inadequate Education," as well as for additional information on the event, visit

Published Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2005