Skip to main content
Up Front

Investing in Education at Home and Abroad Will Reap Big Returns for the U.S.

Justin W. van Fleet and Rebecca Winthrop

In President Obama’s State of the Union Address, he focused on the need for U.S. investment in education, particularly in the areas of science and technology.  Our “Sputnik moment” in education is partially spurred by the recent OECD Program for International Student Assessment, which places the United States behind countries like China, Korea and Finland in math and science. He cited countries like India and China as having embraced educating their children earlier and longer.

In the era of spending cuts, the call to “out-educate” other countries should not be confused with the need for the U.S. to invest in the human potential of young people living in developing countries. The number of youth around the world is larger than it has ever been and the majority live in developing countries. In these regions of the world, hundreds of millions of children are denied quality opportunities for learning, affecting the most marginalized populations living in extreme poverty. This often includes children with disabilities, child laborers, adolescents and girls. For example, one study estimated less than one in five young girls in sub-Saharan Africa enroll in secondary school and many of the children in primary school are failing to master foundation skills, like reading. The inability to master these basic skills sets up generations of young people for failure to integrate into society and points to a larger global learning crisis. 

As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently pointed out in Foreign Affairs, treating the future as a competition among nations “vying to get larger pieces of a finite economic pie… is a recipe for protectionism and global strife. Instead, Americans must realize that expanding educational attainment everywhere is the best way to grow the pie for all.” We know that investing in a single year of education for children in developing countries boosts wages by 10 percent, increases the chance of healthier, smaller families and is associated with a reduced risk of conflict. Investing in young people in developing countries, alongside our own domestic education investments, creates a more secure, sustainable and healthy world with productive citizens. An educated global citizenry provides opportunities for livelihoods and economic participation, a larger consumer base for American goods and services, stronger and more stable democracies and life options that make joining extremist groups less appealing. 

Turning a blind eye to the global learning crisis in developing countries would be detrimental to the interests of the United States. What would a world look like if we failed to invest in the nearly 70 million out-of-school young people in developing countries, most of whom live conflict-affected regions? This includes countries like Pakistan, where half of the country’s population is under the age of 17.  Are we morally content standing by when results show that over 90 percent of young children in some African countries are unable to read a single word by the end of the second grade?

As Americans, we have witnessed the benefits of investing in education at home and abroad – it’s a win-win policy. The president’s State of the Union address should be a call for us to use education as a tool to invest strategically in human potential at home and abroad in order to create brighter, more prosperous and secure futures for all of us.

More

Get daily updates from Brookings