A critical factor in children and youth’s much-needed improvements in learning outcomes across the globe is data. In particular, Brookings research has previously highlighted four types of data that are necessary for the successful achievement of outcomes. One of these types of data—cost data—is one that receives relatively little attention in mainstream global early childhood development (ECD) and education discussions. Yet, cost data is critically important for accountability and budgeting, for estimating the financial implications of scaling up services, and for conducting cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analyses. A universal challenge, however, is that decisionmakers at all levels of the education system often face barriers to collecting, understanding, and analyzing high-quality cost data.

Cost data is critically important for accountability and budgeting, for estimating the financial implications of scaling up services, and for conducting cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analyses.

Our education and early childhood development (ECD) costing project at the Center for Universal Education (CUE) examines the barriers to the generation and use of quality cost data in order to identify potential solutions to these barriers. The project draws on years of CUE research on data and transparency, innovations, and outcome-based financing to document key principles for effective data collection and use in education and ECD.

Barriers to costing

Initial research indicates that there are both demand- and supply-side barriers to collecting, understanding, and analyzing cost data. While all these barriers may not be present in all contexts, at least some combination of these barriers is contributing to the global challenge of improving learning outcomes. On the supply-side, there are three key barriers:

  • Insufficient underlying data. Systems may not be in place to adequately track costs or expenditures or identify prices, so these underlying data are unavailable for cost analyses. Also, decisionmakers and funders may be restricted from accessing necessary information such as the cost of personnel or the distribution of expenditure across program activities or components.
  • Poor availability and/or access to tools to collect and analyze data. There are only a handful of tools available to conduct cost analysis in ECD and education. Often tools for cost analysis are not well known or are inaccessible to key stakeholders. Very few of the tools that do exist can be used to conduct cost analysis on integrated ECD programs across multiple sectors.
  • Methodological complexities. The quality and consistency of analyses can suffer from a variety of methodological complexities including: heterogeneity of costing models, interventions, and contexts; inability to capture data from all actors involved in a given program and to calculate the value of volunteer labor and donated space; and challenges with calculating unit costs that correctly consider the utility of physical capital over time and beneficiaries.

These barriers on the supply side are enabled and exacerbated by the demand-side, where our research has also identified three main barriers:

  • Low prioritization. Decisionmakers and funders may not sufficiently value or recognize the importance of collecting cost data and conducting high-quality cost analysis. As a result, this may lead to insufficient incentives in place, such as the necessary resources to collect and conduct cost analysis.
  • Aversion to transparency. Decisionmakers may have an aversion to sharing information on program costs, as this could reveal potential misspending or inefficient allocation of funds. Also, cost data often includes information on salaries, which may be considered private.
  • Heterogenous capacity and needs. The capacity to identify what type of data is needed and where to find it, as well as how to conduct cost analysis, varies greatly but is often lacking at all levels of an education system. Also, because the users of cost data vary, their needs can vary substantially.

Next steps

Ensuring the increased availability and use of high-quality costing data for policymaking is a complex problem. Addressing both the supply-side and demand-side barriers will require a combination of both technical tools and assistance, as well as more adaptive solutions, and it will require global coordination and prioritization among various stakeholders.

CUE’s education and ECD costing project aims to tackle these barriers from a number of different angles. In addition to identifying the barriers to costing, CUE also aims to identify and put solutions into practice through the development of tools and resources for cost collection and analysis, and to bring clarity and consistency to multisectoral cost analysis. This work will also draw on the depth and breadth of knowledge of the Early Childhood Development Action Network (ECDAN) and other key stakeholders in the ECD and education sectors though collaborative efforts across both the demand- and supply-side barriers.

In the coming months, CUE will continue to share updates on its costing research and work. Keep an eye out later this year for the launch of our new user-friendly online tool for calculating costs of ECD and education programs based on our earlier tool, the Standardized ECD Costing Tool, as well as updates on our ongoing collaborative global efforts.