What is education worth?

By Joseph Thomas, Ph.D. Candidate, College of Business, Law & Governance – James Cook University. Joseph will be presenting at the Doing School Differently conference in Melbourne on 15th–16th September.


What is the dollar value of education?

You can’t put a price on education? Tell that to the educators across the country under the gun to prove the economic benefits of their work. It’s strange, really. We don’t often demand that doctors prove the worth of their contribution…

Then again, we economists love to put price tags on things. Nature, life-satisfaction, the Year 12 completion certificate.

So what is education worth? Well, it might depend on whose education we’re talking about.

For example, each year in Australia, over 70,000 disadvantaged young people attend flexible learning options. These programs are critical in helping at-risk youth to stay in school, get vocational training and find employment.

What do you suppose a program like that is worth to a struggling teenage mother? In all honesty, it’s hard to say.

In economics, we typically estimate returns to schooling by calculating the average impact of high school completion on a young person’s employment prospects. We tend to group everyone together, generating some abstract notion of the ‘average’ Australian.

But when we do that, we forget the odds are stacked against a good number of our young people.

We need to understand what leads young people to the cusp of dropping out and, importantly, how they overcome. After all, economics isn’t really about money; it’s about the choices we make when faced with limited options.

So our statistical models shouldn’t be abstracted from practice of education. By interviewing educators, we’re also learning how this modern obsession with the economic value of things is affecting realities in the classroom.


‘Closing the gap,’ requires we appreciate the lived experience of that gap. The station we’re born into—the challenges we face from our earliest days—shape the choices we can make and our chances of success in life.

Where education is uncritically held up as society’s great equalizer, we obscure the importance of social welfare, health, and security. In other words, we wrongly place the onus of poverty on young people, instead of the systems that perpetuate disadvantage.

Fair educational policy demands an honest accounting of what’s working, for whom. Our research is shining a light on inequality and strengthening our educational system for the benefit of all Australians.


Website_Pics - Thomas_cropJoseph Thomas’s Ph.D. research queries the policies and praxis of neoliberalisation in Australia’s flexible learning sector.

Joseph will be speaking as part of a number of papers from a research project about Gauging the value of Flexible Learning Options for Disenfranchised Youth and the Australian Community at the Doing School Differently flexible and inclusive education conference in Melbourne on 15th–16th September 2016.

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