Cost-Effectiveness Analysis Made Easy: A new tool from Teachers College | Teachers College Columbia University

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Cost-Effectiveness Analysis Made Easy: A new tool from Teachers College

“Increasingly funders, both in the government and in private foundations, are demanding cost estimates of interventions in schools,” says Fiona Hollands, Associate Director of TC’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education (CBCSE). “But most of the estimates they receive are still pretty much back-of-the-envelope. This will make everyone’s life easier.”

“This” is CostOut, a new online tool developed by CBCSE to help educators, researchers, and policymakers estimate the costs and cost-effectiveness of educational or other social programs.

CostOut is the latest fruit of a multi-year, federally-funded effort by CBCSE to export the “ingredients method” developed by CBCSE’s co-founder and Director, Henry Levin, William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics & Education. Hollands is co-Principal Investigator with Levin on the CostOut project.

Developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences, CostOut prompts the user to list all ingredients required to implement an intervention, from teachers to facilities to equipment, and to assign appropriate prices based on the quantity and quality of ingredients needed. The system then calculates the total costs and cost per student of the intervention. If the user has ingredients and effectiveness data on several interventions that aim to improve the same educational outcome, the system can generate cost-effectiveness comparisons that can inform resource allocation decisions, for example, to help a district policymaker decide which of three alternative reading programs to implement in the district.

CostOut automatically provides any necessary adjustments for inflation, geographical location, and for multi-year programs, the time of investment. It provides a database of around 700 prices of educational resources to help users estimate the costs of educational programs. For example, there are 70 different teacher salary levels, culled from publicly available surveys. Users can also easily build their own personal price databases to plug in salary or other data specific to their own school or district.

An Excel-based prototype of CostOut has been available for the past two years which users had to download and use with minimal guidance. The online iteration, created by means of a $260,000 federal grant, includes a detailed user manual with screen shots, and video tutorials to walk users through the various steps and interpret the results of their analyses. Both the prototype and the online tool, which is much more user friendly, were designed by TC doctoral student Barbara Hanisch-Cerda.

“We’re marketing this mostly to people with some research or data analysis background, but we’d also like to reach education decision-makers and policymakers who want their analysts to make use of this tool,” Hollands says.

Judging by the immediate response, there’s likely to be considerable interest. Within a day after CostOut was officially launched, 47 different users registered to use it, including professional researchers and evaluators, state and district education departments, and non-profit groups in health and education.

CostOut can be accessed at


Published Wednesday, Sep. 16, 2015


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