Locked out of learning: Global effort needed to expand education

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Our world has no shortage of problems and we are certain to face new ones in the years ahead. To deal with them and build a more secure, healthy, prosperous and peaceful future for the planet’s nearly 7.4 billion inhabitants and generations to come, we need to make educating our youth a top priority. This should be a priority of the Trump administration and Congress.

Doing this will be an enormous task that will require a vast international effort. It will demand that the United States and other wealthy nations devote billions of dollars in foreign aid over decades to help the world’s poorer countries expand educational opportunities for millions of young people now locked out of schools from the earliest grades to the highest.

{mosads}Yet the cost of educating people to help them build better lives will be far less than what nations now spend to kill people in wars. And money spent on educating young people in other nations is more likely to build goodwill and friendship than money spent to bomb them.

While it would be naive to say that all wars would end if only we had a more educated global population, it is reasonable to believe that there would be fewer conflicts in a world where more people held good-paying jobs, fewer people went hungry, and fewer had inadequate shelter. And if educated people can build good lives for themselves in their home countries, they are less likely to immigrate to countries struggling today to deal with high levels of immigration.

The United Nations approved a Sustainable Development Goal in 2015 stating that by 2030 nations should “ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.” The same document calls for “equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.”

We are very far from these goals today. About 263 million school-age children and youth around the world are not in elementary or secondary school, the U.N. reports. That is more than the population of any single nation on Earth except for the three most populous – China, India and the United States. Most tragically, about 25 million children of elementary school age will probably never set foot in a classroom.

And a report issued in March by the U.N. found that due to gender discrimination almost twice as many girls as boys are denied their right to an education around the world. For example, the report said that in South and West Asian nations 16 percent of boys never receive a formal education, compared to 80 percent of girls. This terrible discrimination has life-long consequences.

Attaining a college degree is a rare achievement globally. A 2011 study by Harvard University and the Asian Development Bank found that less than 7 percent of the world’s population holds a college degree. This must change, because colleges and universities are the knowledge factories that can transform bright young people into the educated men and women we so desperately need to deal with the world’s problems.

Imagine how we could all benefit if we could boost that number. More scientists, inventors, business leaders, physicians and other educated professionals could play an important role in building a better future. Some could discover cures for diseases, develop new energy sources to mitigate climate change, find ways to increase food production for the growing global population, create new industries and jobs, invent new products and accomplish other great things.

In different contexts, each of us has witnessed the amazing transformative power of education when it is made available to young people like the millions who should now be in school but are not, particularly those with the greatest potential to excel academically.

Harold Levy has seen this as chancellor of New York City Schools, especially at three selective public high schools for high-achieving students opened during his term and at the first Bard Early College High School, which enables outstanding high school students to earn associate degrees tuition-free at the same time they earn their high school diplomas.

He has also seen this in his present position as the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation,which has provided over $152 million in scholarships to enable nearly 2,200 outstanding low-income students to achieve spectacular success in colleges and universities.

John Sexton has seen similar results when he was president of New York University, where some of the most successful students on campus are drawn from 20 percent of the class eligible for federal Pell Grants that go to low-income students.

Even more dramatically, in his work with students at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus in the United Arab Emirates, he has seen the stunning effect of providing genuine educational opportunity to students drawn literally from around the world, including many who come from remote villages or hostile environments where they would have received little or no advanced education. An active worldwide scouting system discovers these gems.

A need-blind admissions policy, along with generous government financial aid, makes it possible for them to attend with students from 120 different countries regardless of income. In just four years, with less than 1,400 graduates, nine NYU Abu Dhabi students have been named Rhodes Scholars and one has been named a Cooke Scholar.

Education will only grow in importance around the world as sophisticated machines, computers and robots continue to take over the jobs of factory workers and other laborers. Millions of uneducated people will grow increasingly desperate as they struggle to survive, making them more susceptible to calls to violence as a way to improve their lives.

It makes far more sense to act now to prevent the worsening plight of those denied an education than to wait for conditions to deteriorate. Increasing spending by the Trump administration and Congress to create a better-educated global citizenry will become more and more necessary and must be viewed as an essential investment — like a farmer spending money on seed and fertilizer to grow a valuable crop.

Making this investment will not be an act of charity, but rather an act of self-interest that will benefit us all, our children, our grandchildren and our planet. It is also our moral duty.

Harold O. Levy is the executive director of the Cooke Foundation and the former New York City schools chancellor. John Sexton, president emeritus of New York University and dean emeritus of the NYU Law School, leads the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education.

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