Valuing Education

Discussions about funding as well as the question “is education a right or privilege” got me thinking; how do we value education?

When we talk about how much something is valued, we want to quantify “value” and the easiest way to do that is to look at how much money is spent on it.  I realized while thinking about this question that I had never looked at the raw numbers of how much money we spend on education from a supply side.

According to the World Bank, in 2009 the U.S. spent 13.1% of all government expenditures on education, while Switzerland spent 16.2%.World Bank Stats

Defining U.S. federal money spent on education is difficult, as this New York Times article points out, but I like the author’s definition and conclusion.  Jason Delisle puts the federal spending number at about $107.6 billion in 2012, out of a total federal budget of $3.5 trillion – so right about 3% of the federal budget.  I don’t interpret that as a sign the federal govt doesn’t value education – rather that education has and will continue to be the state’s responsibility.

The majority of funding for education comes from states in the US, much as cantons are responsible for funding most education in Switzerland.  The numbers I found from Virginia’s DPB (Department of Planning & Budget) were eye opening – from 2008-2010, 39.4% of all moneys the State generated went towards education.  In a $74.8 billion budget, that translates into roughly 29.5 billion dollars.  That’s for all education, from preschools on up.

According to the 2012 Public Finances report by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance, Swiss federal spending in 2011 was 10.4% of all expenditures for education and research (it’s unclear to me if including “research” means including funding for the SNSF).  ”State” spending on education was 17% (cantons & communes).  These percentages translate to 5.4 billion CHF federally and 32.7 billion CHF by cantons & communes.

Looking at it from the Va state budget perspective, I’d say the numbers argue that education is highly valued – in fact, we spend more state money on education than anything else, and it takes up more than 1/3 of our entire state budget.  Maybe from a global perspective it isn’t as encouraging, with the World Bank numbers in the teens, but it’s still a decent chunk of money when one considers all the services/expenditures governments have.  I wanted to include similar data from Switzerland, but I don’t feel like direct comparison with the numbers from the U.S. is legitimate since in some cases the funding apparatuses might be totally different.  Perhaps the best US/CH comparison for our purposes is again from the World Bank data – expenditure per student in tertiary education as a % of GDP per capita: Switzerland = 44.7, U.S = 19.6.
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However, the numbers aren’t the only story.  We can argue whether the money we devote to education is an accurate reflection of how valuable we think that education is.  Is the value of a bachelor’s degree determined by the increased income it will provide over the lifetime of an individual?  That definition doesn’t leave room for “liberal arts” education, and yet liberal arts programs are still embraced across the U.S.

In our GPP “University of Swissica” group, there was a lot of discussion about how education broadens minds and universities “teach people how to think”.  If this is true, how do we define the “value” of helping adolescents become independent, creative and engaged members of society rather than just consuming automatons?  Therein lies the difficulty – that there are social and moral components to education that are impossible to put a number on and yet still have value.

So what happens when we only take an “economic” view of education?  I think this quote from Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard professor, is apt: “…A market economy is a tool, it’s a valuable tool, it’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence and prosperity. It’s a tool that we use and that we put to our purposes. But as markets and market thinking come to inform all aspects of life, as everything becomes available for sale, we become a market society, which is a way of thinking and being – an unreflective way of thinking and being – that just assumes that all the good things in life can, in principle, be up for sale.  And that, I think, diminishes a great many moral and civic goods that markets and market relations don’t honor and that money can’t, or shouldn’t, buy.”

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