What is an education really worth?
Last week, I attended part of the Telluride Foundation’s Economic Summit on Early Childhood Investment; a meeting of business and finance leaders determined to focus the political spotlight on early childhood education, and specifically, its financial value.
Much of what was conveyed during this three-day Summit was the urgent need to amass lofty business support of government education programs, explicitly those aimed at building solid educational foundations for kids during their most critical phase of social and intellectual development (age 1-6 years.) Research cited by this year’s Summit speakers, who included Colorado Congressman Jared Polis, Senator Michael Bennet, and BusinessWeek chief economist Michael Mandel, illuminated the linkage between a strong approach to early education, and a strong country with a robust economy. By shoring up our country’s workforce through early childhood education programs that prepare children for their educational and professional futures, we can strengthen our economy, they said.
Some of the hard data relating to the real economic benefits of early childhood education conveyed at last week’s Summit was illuminating: At least half of the achievement gap already exists – prior to kindergarten. Children who have had some form of solid early childhood education are more likely to graduate on time, attend a four-year college and by age 27, and are almost twice as likely to own a home. This is compared to children without early childhood educations, noted in studies like the Perry Preschool Project and Barnett Study of Studies, who are more likely to require special education during school, have behavioral problems, and by age 27 are more likely to smoke cigarettes, have been arrested more than five times and have been on welfare. The “return on investment” for early childhood education is around $16 to every $1 spent, both in money saved (less people going to jail or on welfare) as well as made (by a higher-paid workforce.)
The speakers’ analyses of the economic benefits of education got me thinking about the real value of an education. The topic hit home for me, as I’ve recently been trying to start a College Savings plan for Elle. I admit, I shudder to think about how much a private college education like the one I had will cost, when Elle graduates from high school.
But high school seniors setting out into the great big world of higher education were not the focus of last week’s discussion – my daughter, age 1 ½, was.
Elle, who calls a “pillow” a “puddle” and believes every color is either purple or yellow. Elle, whose favorite book is Hop on Pop. This is the intellectual echelon these exalted economists and politicians were speaking of? This phase, during which I hope to help Elle differentiate between pillows and puddles and expand her knowledge of color beyond yellow and purple, is the most critical for all of her future intellectual development?
After hearing all the research presented last week correlating strong early childhood education with almost all dimensions of a person’s future success, my first impulse was to draw up a bunch of flash cards and get Elle learning her colors. Teach her Latin. Forego Dr. Seuss in favor of Robert Frost.
This is, after all, the most critical time for her to learn – and the most important opportunity I have to help shape a person who will stand a better chance at serving her country as non-smoking, home-owning college graduate who hasn’t been to jail and is a money-making member of the national workforce who will help pay for my retirement thanks to her role in keeping our economy from tanking!
I had, admittedly, never looked at my daughter, in this light before: as an investment in my country’s (and thus my own) financial future.
A member of the Summit audience asked Mandel after his keynote address last Tuesday: “Why is it important to talk about early childhood investment in the language of economics? What about the language we usually use to talk about education – the language of values, community connections and fundamental social institutions?”
Mandel responded that, to elicit honest action from the political establishment, legitimacy within the realm of business and finance must be built for the cause.
“You must resist the urge to put a halo around the word ‘community,” he said. “We must have this discussion from the point of view of a community’s economic success,” and not, presumably, from the point of view of building a community just by supporting programs that educate its youngest citizens.
His point, like it or not, was that support for this cause must be assembled in the arena of business and finance in order to bring about bona fide change. And I think he’s right, at least when the problem of lacking early childhood education is tackled at the national level.
But I also believe the language of community is still spoken in the chambers of small town governments, like those in Mountain Village. Last week, TMVOA awarded the soon-to-be-constructed Mountain Munchkins preschool $30,000 – despite pressures to reduce spending in its 2010 budget. This follows the Town of Mountain Village’s $380,000 contribution to the project, through its donation of a two-bedroom Village Court apartment for use as the new preschool space. When it opens next year, the new Mountain Munchkins preschool will help allay some of the region’s early childcare needs by providing 14 more preschool spots.
I doubt that TMVOA and the Town of Mountain Village based their decision to help fund this project just on their belief that a new preschool would benefit the town economically, at least not immediately. Perhaps the members of these two governments inherently understand the value, both social and economic, of investing in early childhood education. Maybe these two governing bodies are ahead of the national curve in recognizing the merit of investing in programs that educate young children. As a registered voter in Mountain Village, I’m proud these two governments have made providing strong educational foundations for our community’s children a priority; it shows that our town government understands both the language of community as well as the language of economics. And since Elle now stands a better chance at attending a high-quality preschool in a few years, I’m feeling less pressure to get her started on Latin, although some Robert Frost poems before bedtime may not be a bad idea.