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Copenhagen Consensus Center

Lowering the Price of Schooling and Improving Girls’ Schooling

The Challenge

We know that education can provide a pathway out of poverty. Without it, children are more likely to become criminals, abuse drugs and suffer from chronic illness. Hundreds of studies show a link between how long children spend in school and how much they earn as grown-ups.

Of about 112 million children born annually in developing countries, nearly one-quarter will not complete primary school.

Although steady progress has been made over the past 50 years toward increasing education and literacy worldwide, we are still a considerable distance from the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal that every child should be given at least a primary education by 2015.

Significant gender gaps in schooling enrollments persist in particular regions and at particular levels of education. This is especially true for parts of South Asia and poorer countries in sub-Saharan Africa.


The Solution

A relatively large amount of money is spent each year in an effort to get more – and better – education to children in the developing world. A lot of this money could be better spent. Experience shows that merely building more schools is not the best approach. Indonesia doubled its number of schools in six years, leading only to a three percent rise in the amount of time spent at school. In much of the world, schools already exist where most children live. New ones can divert them from other schools.

Many attempts to increase the quality of education go wrong because there is still no agreement on what constitutes ‘quality’. What one study finds critically important proves unimportant or even detrimental in another.


The Research

Five grades are sufficient for a child to attain literacy in most nations. While a quarter of children in developing nations do not complete their first five years at school, more than half of these children did start. Peter Orazem, Paul Glewwe and Harry Patrinos suggest in the Copenhagen Consensus Center Best Practice Paper, ‘Lowering the Price of Schooling’, that the best – and most cost-effective – way to boost schooling is to focus on eliminating grade school drop-outs in developing nations, ahead of trying to attract children who have never attended school.

In developing countries, girls, rural children, and children from the poorest households are the least likely to complete primary school. There is significant evidence that developing country parents, when facing high fees and cost of schooling will under-invest in their children’s schooling.

Even though only 18% of developing countries officially charge tuition, 84% charge some type of formal or informal fee for children to attend primary school. These fees include charges for uniforms or school supplies, mandatory payments to parent-teacher associations, as well as formal or informal tuition and other fees. The costs can be a large fraction of the household income, and parents can pull their children out of school to send them to work instead.

Orazem et al. recommend four cost-effective strategies to lower the costs parents face when sending their children to school.

The first strategy involves the elimination of primary school tuition. In Uganda, enrollments increased 60% following the elimination of school fees. Although the children who entered school after the fee reduction were more likely to drop out before completing the primary cycle, they finished in sufficient numbers to justify the expense (of US$2,703 to $3,675 or €1,933 to €2,628 per child).

The second strategy involves the use of grants that promise private school operators a fee for schooling girls in poor neighborhoods. In Pakistan a program based on this approach resulted in large increases in schooling in urban areas but more modest gains in rural areas.

The third strategy involves providing tutors for poor children. In Asian countries, tutors are commonly used to supplement schooling, but poor households cannot afford them. In many countries, there is a ready supply of educated young women who represent a potential supply of tutors that can be hired at modest cost. The benefits in improved cognitive attainment can be substantial.

The fourth strategy involves providing government vouchers that would allow poor children to attend private secondary schools. The Columbian government offered poor families vouchers that would allow their children to attend private secondary schools that had excess capacity. Evaluations of the program found that voucher recipients completed school in greater proportions and scored higher on standardized tests.

Reducing fees is much less expensive than bricks and mortar expansions and has a much larger effect. Targeting children who are at risk of dropping out is the most effective way of moving toward the United Nations Millennium Development Goal on schooling.

In ‘Women and Development’, a Challenge paper for the Copenhagen Consensus 2008 project, Elizabeth King, Stephan Klasen, and Maria Porter, looked specifically at ways to increase girls’ schooling.

King et al. recommend a system whereby mothers are paid if their school-age daughters attend school regularly from the 3rd to the 9th grade. This is known as Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT). A Bangladeshi program in which householdsreceive stipends for direct and indirect schooling costs of girls, and similar ones in Pakistan and Cambodia, have been found to increase enrollment rates significantly.

King’s recommended path would both increase girls’ enrollment and also put money into women’s hands – important because studies show that money given to women is more likely to provide positive nutritional and health benefits for their children than money given to men. It also provides the women with greater bargaining power in their own households.

The annual cost per pupil is estimated by King et al. to be US$32 (or €29). Covering every eligible girl in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia for a year would cost $6 billion (or €4.2 billion). Benefits from increased future wages and the reduction in healthcare use would be between three and 26 times higher.


Where to Find Out More

Lowering the Price of Schooling: Best Practice Paper
Peter F. Orazem, P. Glewwe, H. Patrinos

Education: Copenhagen Consensus 2008 Challenge Paper
Peter F. Orazem

Women and Development: Copenhagen Consensus 2008 Challenge Paper
Elizabeth King, S. Klasen, M. Porter

Education and Women and Development Chapters
in Global Crises, Global Solutions, second edition
edited by Bjorn Lomborg

The Expert Panel's joint explanation for their rankings is available for download here. The Expert Panel's individual rankings and further elaboration can be found in the book, Global Crises, Global Solutions, second edition.