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We Can Pay for Education Today - Or Prisons Tomorrow

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High school dropout rates have been in the news a lot lately. Last month saw the release of two major reports that drew renewed attention to the issue. One from the America's Promise Alliance found that in the fifty largest cities in the U.S., nearly half of all high school students fail to graduate on time. Another from McKinsey & Co. argued that the huge academic achievement gaps separating different groups of Americans take a huge economic toll on the country -- they likened the effect of leaving so many kids behind to a permanent economic recession.

A new tool that our organization, the American Human Development Project, developed with United Way illustrates in very concrete terms the nature and extent of the costs we all pay for the terrible inequities that characterize our educational system -- the Common Good ForecasterTM. This online web tool uses the most recent official data available on U.S. states and counties to put a human face on the effects of decisions we make as a society. It offers a snapshot of educational outcomes in our communities today and paints a picture of a different tomorrow.

Let's take a look at the situation today in the cities America's Promise Alliance found to have the country's worst graduation rates -- Indianapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Los Angeles -- and see how things might change if more adults in those areas had completed high school or college.

We all know that more education leads to better jobs and bigger paychecks, on average. But it's startling to see just how much improving rates of high school graduation and college-going would boost a community's median personal earnings and reduce the unemployment and poverty rates.
  • If in Marion County, Indiana, home of Indianapolis, all adults without a high school degree had completed high school, 12,000 fewer people there would live in poverty, and median personal earnings would increase by1,400 year -- a significant sum for a family living in poverty.
  • If all adults in Wayne County, Michigan, home of Detroit, had at least a high school degree, 17,500 fewer people there would be unemployed.
  • If all adults in Fulton County, Georgia, home of Atlanta, moved up one educational category -- for example, if all high school dropouts had completed high school and all who graduated high school went on to attend at least some college -- median person earnings would shoot up7,800.
  • If all adults in Los Angeles County without high school degrees had them, median personal earnings would go up by about2,000 -- a sum about equal to the average Earned Income Tax Credit that low-income workers received in 2006.
But the impacts beyond the dollar are in some ways even more dramatic.
  • If all adults in Cuyahoga Country, Ohio (Cleveland) were to move up one educational category, the average life span there would increase by nearly two years; in Baltimore County, the average life span would grow by more than a year.
  • If all adults in Los Angeles County were to move up one educational category, there would be an astonishing 566 fewer murders, on average, every year. Doubling the college graduation rate in Wayne County, MI (Detroit) would likely result in some 100 fewer murders.
  • Completing high school has a big impact on voting. If all adults were at least high school graduates, voting rates in all the cities would rise significantly -- up by 16,000 in the Baltimore area, 37,000 in the Cleveland area, 29,000 in the Milwaukee area, and some 300,000 in Los Angeles.
Not all of our indicators are available at the country level, but looking at state-level data shows education's marked impact on incarceration, obesity, low birthweight, and children's reading proficiency.
  • If all adults in California had graduated high school, there would be more than 50,000 fewer people behind bars; in Michigan, nearly 22,000 fewer; in Indiana, nearly 11,000 fewer. This represents a tremendous diversion of scarce resources; keeping a single person behind bars costs the government around $25,000 per year.
  • If all adults in Michigan were at least high school graduates, 75,000 fewer people would be obese; in Ohio, 47,000 fewer; in Georgia, 33,000 fewer.
  • Low birthweight is a risk factor for developmental delays, impairments and infant death. If all adults were to move up one educational category in Wisconsin, 552 fewer babies would face the wide-ranging and persistent risks associated with low birthweight.
  • Nearly 30,000 eighth graders in California would be categorized "proficient readers" were all adults to move up one educational category.
Have we convinced you yet?
Education does not, of course, inoculate us against all misfortune. But education increases people's resilience and decreases their vulnerability. Unemployment, for instance, is on the rise everywhere today. But Labor Department figures show that last year the unemployment rate grew three times faster for people without high school degrees than it did for college grads. When it comes to health, people of every educational level get cancer. But better educated people are less likely to die from it -- not just because they are more likely to have health insurance but also because they can better navigate the healthcare system and understand treatment options, and are more likely to adhere to treatment regimens and use newer and more effective drugs. Research shows that more educated people have a greater ability to adjust to change, better mental and physical health, and stronger social bonds -- critical ingredients for weathering crises of all sorts.

With the economy in a free fall and state and local revenues plunging as a result, officials and policy-makers are feeling the pinch. It's tempting to say education can wait. But that would be shortsighted in ways both foolish and tragic. Education has been the engine of upward mobility for generations of Americans -- and it's more important than ever in today's globalized, knowledge-based economy. We can pay for education today -- or prisons tomorrow.

Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharps are the co-directors of the American Human Development Project, an initiative of the Social Science Research Council that is funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The project works to introduce to Americans a well-honed framework used around the world to assess human well-being and access to opportunity: the human development approach. Its hallmark is the American Human Development Index, a composite measure that paints a portrait of how Americans are doing today and empowers communities with tools to track progress and to hold elected officials accountable for improvements in areas we all care about: health, education, and standard of living.