Increasing the number of high school graduates will pay dividends for Cleveland
by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, March 2007) As Cleveland residents and political leaders once again begin a debate on how to spend our public resources with a new round of public meetings, one consideration to raise is that we need to drastically change from what we been doing in the past. Despite all our public expenditures and so-called capital improvements and tax-abated developments, many Cleveland residents remain mired in poverty. While we have built many new houses, the residents they have attracted pale in comparison to those leaving the city. The city now faces the high cost of tearing down abandoned houses. Residents face disruptions from foreclosures and evictions, the like of which we have not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s.


We as a city have invested heavily in building new housing and public structures, and have committed public dollars far into the future to continue to do so – tax abatements, stadiums, new administration buildings for Cuyahoga County and Cuyahoga County Metropolitan Housing Authority, to name a few recent examples. Yet, we have not used the same vigor to rally resources to invest in our human capital. As a result, our public school system has a high school dropout rate of nearly 50% -- one of the highest in the nation.

This lack of investment in people threatens the huge investment the city and private sector have made, and continue to make, in housing and new facilities. A recent study done by the Teachers College of Columbia University titled The Costs and Benefits of an Excellent Education for All of America’s Children puts a dollar number on many of the costs that society incurs when individuals don’t finish high school.

The study examines five different public investments in education that have demonstrated they can raise the high school graduation rate. The increase in graduation rates ranged from 5 to 19 more graduates per 100 pupils. The extra educational cost per pupil of the interventions ranged from $59,100 to $143,600 per expected high school graduate. In each of the cases, ranging from preschool, parent-centered schooling, smaller class sizes, and increased teacher pay, the public investment in education more than pays for itself in public savings and income as measured by the lower cost to society and increased taxes paid by the high school graduates.

The study estimates that the per pupil benefits of the interventions studied resulted in a $127,000 per pupil benefit to the public in savings and taxes collected over and above the increased expenditure on education. On average this represents two and a half times more than the public investment. This figure doesn’t take into account the personal benefits that the graduates will incur with higher expected lifetime earnings.

One of the areas outlined by the study that would be of particular interest to Clevelanders is the reduction in violent crime that results when more people graduate from high school. In neighborhoods throughout Cleveland, residents have stories of people fleeing the city because of crime. Meetings about how to tackle crime abound and attract large crowds. Citizens invest a great deal of time and energy on crime watch activities.

Using average rates of crime by high school dropouts versus that of high school graduates, the Columbia University study predicts that by reducing the number of high school dropouts the public investment it recommends will result in a 19.6% reduction in murder, rape and other violent crimes, a 10.4% reduction in property crimes, and a 11.5% reduction in drug offenses. The study estimates that the average lifetime public cost of a high school dropout (in terms of trials, sentencing, and jail) to be $26,600 greater than that of the average high school graduate. This does not measure the huge costs to victims of these crimes.

While working to increase the number of high school graduates and investing in our future citizens is the right thing to do, the Columbia study also indicates that it makes economic sense to do so as well.

The interventions suggested by the study do not come cheap. The authors say they only selected programs “for which rigorous and credible evaluations were available and which showed positive impacts on reducing high school dropouts.”

The authors have some suggestions on other ways to improve graduation rates that may be even more effective than those examined in the study. Their suggestions include: “1) small school size; 2) high levels of personalization; 3) high academic expectations; 4) strong counseling; 5) parental engagement; 6) extended time school sessions; and 7) competent and appropriate personnel.”

As we debate a new a capital plan for the city, expenditures of community development funds, and tax abatements for new housing and development, let us also debate the consequences for our future of neglecting to address the educational needs of our children.

While the new Chief Executive Officer of the Cleveland Municipal School District has promised to make the school system into a “premier” school district, let us make sure the path we take has substance and is not just smoke and mirrors.

Let us examine how to redirect our limited public resources into uses where they will do the most good. Let us make wise investments that will build productive citizens that will help us to pay for some of the public palaces our politicians are building.

Editor’s note: The Costs and Benefits of an Excellent Education for All of America’s Children by Henry Levin, Columbia University Teachers College; Clive Belfield, City University of New York; Peter Muennig of Columbia University and Cecilia Rouse of Princeton University was published in January of 2007 and is available on-line at


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