Dropouts are a tradition we can no longer afford
Teachers College at Columbia University is the largest graduate school of education in the country. Along with its School of Journalism, also a graduate school, Columbia is continuing an admirable tradition -- the idea that these were lifetime professions, and to be your best at them you needed to bring something to the table besides intra-industry skill sets and technical knowledge.
So, as an undergraduate you can't major in education or journalism at Columbia. You are expected to pursue knowledge in another academic area -- history, politics, mathematics, science -- and bring that knowledge with you as you prepare for your professional life.
In today's world, with the exception of sports, to identify something as a tradition is equivalent to calling it hopelessly old fashioned. And we live in a world where the powerful economic forces at work in education tend to work in opposition to traditions of any sort, irrespective of their value.
Certainly there are forces driving people to pursue education as a means to increase their future income. On the other hand, since higher education is expensive and graduate schools even more so there are also pressures on students to enter the workforce as soon as possible.
And that's the rational side of the equation. At the high school level, where the costs of education are not usually borne by the individual student, we see an alarming number of people dropping out -- to meet a future that lies somewhere between bleak and unattractive. The why's of this are not known, exactly, but its costs are startling.
Recently, Columbia University's Teachers College hosted a symposium to examine the costs of inadequate education, and it painted a vivid picture of economic losses from school dropouts. These losses are both personal and social, and they include direct and indirect costs.
On the personal side, during his or her lifetime the average high school dropout will earn about a quarter million dollars less than a graduate. And on the social side, the analysts estimate that lowered income for dropouts reduces income tax revenue by $84 billion a year.
Society also has to absorb the considerable costs of increased crime. Those who drop out of high school are far more likely to commit crimes than their classmates who graduate.
Professor Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied the relationships that affect the social and individual costs associated with increased criminal activity by dropouts. His report delivered at the symposium left little doubt about the connection. After analyzing three separate data series, he wrote, "All three of these data sources produce similar conclusions: schooling significantly reduces criminal activity."
As to the underlying economic theory of this relationship between education and reduced crime, he says, "The first order effect of completing high school is that it improves an individual's economic prospects for higher income. This raises the opportunity cost of crime, for any time spent in prison means a loss of income."
Moretti also says that, "Education may also make individuals less impatient or more risk averse, further reducing the propensity to commit crimes." He emphasizes the "may" part of this, since there is no empirical evidence of this, but it does make good sense and is consistent with economic theory. As he says, "Education does make individuals more aware of consequences, costs and benefits, and may reduce crimes of opportunity and other crimes driven more by impulse than plan."
When we look at the full economic picture, the policy implications are significant. For some years now, for example, we have been operating on the general premise that hiring police officers is a cost-effective way to reduce crime. The most recent economic studies indicate that the benefits outweigh the costs by about 2.5 to one.
Generally speaking, this strategy has been successful; no one questions the crime reduction benefits of increased police presence and economic analysis supports its cost-effectiveness.
By comparison, though, the economic benefits attached to reducing the high school dropout rate represent a bonanza. Not only would the reduction lower the social costs of crime but also our economy would reap the benefit of the higher productivity, and higher pay, that high school graduates enjoy.
There are risks, certainly, in defining and valuing education in exclusively economic terms. And there is something to be said for an educational tradition, such as Columbia's, that defies the economic forces trying to dismantle it.
But we cannot afford to ignore the costs we, the public, have to underwrite when students fail to complete high school. Fixing the dropout problem will help a lot of kids live better lives and, as a bonus, it will save us a lot of money. It's hard to see the harm in that.
This article appeared in the November 6, 2005 edition of the HeraldNet.
Published Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2005