If you think investing in education is expensive … consider the cost of not investing
Michael A. Gerber, May 18, 2010

From ARCHE President Mike Gerber's remarks at the ARCHE Board Chair’s Dinner, May 18, 2010, Zoo Atlanta

 …  I’m going to take just a few moments to talk about Derek Bok, Chancellor Erroll Davis, and the concept of investment.

First, Derek Bok. If you don’t know of him, he has had a long and distinguished career at Harvard University, where he was president from 1971 to 1991 and interim president in 2006. Bok is known for many things, but my interest in him tonight arises from his well-known quote …

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

This quote has started a kind of movement and appears on products you can buy online including bumper stickers, T-shirts, and buttons. There’s even a Facebook page with Bart Simpson as the avatar.

My next person of interest is Chancellor Erroll Davis. Now I’m a fan of the Chancellor and admire both his talent and energy in stating why the quality and well-being of Georgia’s colleges and universities is essential to the future health and well-being of our state.

In January, while making an articulate case before the joint appropriations committees of the legislature that higher education needs to be seen as an investment rather than an expense, the Chancellor mentioned the Bok quote in passing, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

One member of the General Assembly, however, took offense at the word ignorance. That got me thinking: How could one rephrase the Bok quote, because it conveys a great message, and yet eliminate the risk of someone taking it personally.

What I came up with is this ...

If you think investing in education is expensive, consider the cost of not investing.”

It has more words and therefore lacks the punch of Bok’s quote, but at least it doesn’t have any language that might distract people from the point. 

The next thing I thought about was what proof points could support the validity of the investment statement. A year ago ARCHE released a report, Higher Education: How investing in education pays off for Georgia, filled with proof points showing education's benefits. But let me share with you some new information that I think supports the statement both in terms of society and the individual.

Consider the cost to society of not investing in education.

Can anyone tell me what these numbers represent (slightly rounded to the nearest hundred)?



22,100 is the dollar amount of state funds Georgia spent per prisoner in close security (maximum security) long-term facilities in FY 2009.

And 7,200 is the amount of state funds Georgia is spending this fiscal year per full-time-equivalent student enrolled at a University System institution.

Yes, we’re spending three times the amount to keep a prisoner doing hard time than we are to give a citizen a college education that will almost guarantee he or she will never go to prison.

Now you may say, that’s the cost in a maximum-security prison, and they’re the most expensive to run. My response: we’re spending $15,100 for inmates in medium- and lower-security prisons, still more than twice what we’re spending on college students in the university system.

Then you may say, well yes, but education won’t guarantee someone will never go to prison. My response: that’s true. You can’t guarantee anything when it comes to human behavior, but statistically, the odds are completely on the side of the educated person.

Data reported by the Georgia Department of Corrections for the April 2010 prison population of more than 52,000 inmates shows that, fully 61% never finished high school, 28% finished the 12th grade or had a GED. just over 9% attended some college, and only 1.7% had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

And if you really want a shocker, of those prisoners, fully one-third are age 29 or younger. That’s what I call college age. This is not to say that these young adults aren’t learning something in prison, but it scares me to think what the course work looks like and where they end up doing their labs.

Now I’ve used the University System as the basis for this comparison, but if you want to talk about the state’s disparate investments in its citizens, look at the comparison of prison costs with the investment in students attending private colleges, where support from state funds is only about $600 this fiscal year per student and is budgeted to rise to $750 next year. Compare that to $22,100 spent on maximum-security prisoners or $15,200 spent on minimum-security inmates.

So, “If you think investing in education’s expensive, consider the cost to society of not investing.”

Consider the cost to the individual of not investing in education

Can anyone tell me what the following numbers represent (slightly rounded)?




Those are the U.S. unemployment figures for April 2010, by education level. That month, approximately 15% of adults over 25 who never finished high school were unemployed, 11% of all high school graduates who never went on to college were unemployed, and only 5% of those with a bachelor’s degree and higher were unemployed.

Stated directly: In a bad economy, the single best hedge a person can have against unemployment is a college education.

Those who never went past high school had twice the unemployment rate of those with a bachelor’s degree, and those who never finished high school had three times the unemployment rate.

Candidly, unemployment rates can be misleading because they exclude those who can’t find a job and have given up looking and dropped out of the workforce. This is much more common at the lower education levels, so it is very likely those numbers are understated compared to the rate for college grads.

So, “If you think investing in education’s expensive, consider the cost to the individual of not investing.”

I hope that if you find this argument compelling, you’ll repeat it to colleagues, public officials, and particularly those running for office.

The data is clear: Education is a smart investment for the people of Georgia and for the state of Georgia. If we make the investment, there are clear, measurable and positive returns. But if we fail to invest, we all pay the costs.