“If you think education is expensive…”

Posted on March 22, 2012


"Their names are ignorance and want." And they are siblings.


No one summed it up better than former Harvard President Derek Bok, when he said “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” The Alliance for Excellent Education projected the lost earnings of the students who dropped out of the Class of 2011 at $154 billion (thousand million) over their lifetimes. As stunning as that figure is, it represents only the direct cost to the non-graduates, not the costs to society in lost taxation dollars or the social assistance many of these individuals will require later in life. As it turns out, ignorance is very expensive, and for everyone.

It’s with this understanding that government invests in education. The deferred economic benefit created by an educated future generation doesn’t hurt, but the immediate advantage is the wealth and economic activity generated by parents able to return to work earlier, thanks to what is essentially socially-directed subsidized babysitting. (Ivan Illich’s assessment of education as a “false utility,” in terms of a direct employment engine, fails to account for this latter financial effect.) The same mindset drives state investment in post-secondary education too: the return is larger and is effected sooner.

So generally speaking, it’s never been a question of whether to invest, but how much. In the 1960s, the British government commissioned the economist Lionel Robbins to look closely at higher education in the nation and examine a host of issues, including funding. In his Robbins Report, a document that would become the basis of the post-secondary system in the UK today, Robbins recommended that the government continue to subsidize it, but in light of his estimation of inevitable cost increases, that students contribute up to 20% of the expense.

Don't ignore economists.

Robbins miscalculated. He anticipated fairly linear growth in the cost of education, but it was his student, William Baumol, who quantified the scope of the problem while looking in to the economics of the performing arts. Working on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts in the late 60s, Baumol and his colleague Bowen realized that in any industry in which growth in productivity is minimal to negligible, costs would invariably increase faster than revenue. The classic example of this is a performance of a Beethoven string quartet: it takes just as long to play now (probably longer) than it did at the premiere, yet wages have gone up substantially in the intervening two centuries. (For a more detailed discussion of this, see my early series “Taking Beethoven to the Bank” here.) This problem, alternately called “income gap” or “cost disease,” can also be summarized as “contact with any human specialist is going to get more and more expensive,” hence ATMs, automated check in at airports, self check-out at the grocery store… and increased class size in schools. The three industries most susceptible to cost disease are the performing arts, health care (go figure), and education.

And the numbers bear this out. Total per-capita spending in the US on education in 1910 was $137.98, as corrected for inflation (barely $6 in actual spending). In 2012 that number is approximately $5,000, perhaps even $10,000, according to some sources.

Which leads to the ugly truth about educational finance. No one of any intelligence would argue against government funding for education – including music, but costs are increasing relentlessly and the purse is getting thinner and has competing demands upon it. Policy makers are faced with extremely difficult choices, and until education is viewed as the acquisition of multiple literacies for life-long learning rather than the timely regurgitation of factoids for standardized testing, music can’t compete in the educational sphere. We already have plenty of data stating that music is “good for you” (I’ve said that before)or that it increases test scores, but more time or more incentive money on math and reading increases test scores too. The “baseline advocacy argument” of Sistema’s intervention effect is just as easily an argument for the expansion of the school day – unless Sistema were something so different from school both structurally, philosophically and functionally -as it is in Venezuela- that reasonable comparison could not be made.



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