Economists Expect Huge Future Earnings Loss for Students Missing School Due to COVID-19

Contributing Writer

Four months of school and university closures amid COVID-19 could translate to a $2.5 trillion total loss in professional earnings for U.S. workers.

That’s what recent research from four education-focused economists found.

According to a Brookings blog post highlighting the research, each of the country’s approximately 76 million current students enrolled in kindergarten through undergrad will earn an estimated $33,500 less (in today’s dollars) over the span of their careers, because of lost schooling during the coronavirus crisis.

Of course, there could be some variation based on the quality of education individual U.S. students are receiving, as well as how much distance learning is engaging students, Harry Patrinos, the manager for the Europe and Central Asia regions of the World Bank’s education practice and one of the authors of the report, said in an interview with EdWeek Market Brief.

“If school closes and I can do it online, I might get it all back,” Patrinos said. “I might get a fraction of it, but it’s hard to say.”

In terms of future earnings, the immediacy of COVID-19 likely impacts current high schoolers more than students in earlier grades, Patrinos said.

This is, in large part, because COVID-driven financial struggles could spur more high school graduates to enter the labor force instead of pursuing generally higher-paying jobs through a college education, he said.

The study assumes a 45-year working life, mean annual earnings of about $54,500, and that every additional year of schooling equates to 10 percent in additional future earnings. The last of these variables derives from a 2018 study done by Patrinos and George Psacharopoulos, an adjunct professor of global human development at Georgetown University.

While school cancellations vary state by state, the fact that over half of U.S. states have decided to close schools until the fall at the earliest means that much of the financial losses projected over four months of lost schooling may materialize, the blog post says.

Patrinos noted in an email that the study was a preliminary exercise to get orders of magnitude, and said the authors will elaborate on the data further in an upcoming paper.

“We present this as a starting point to help governments make increasingly informed choices about school closures, and to start a global debate on controlling and mitigating the economic downward spiral that COVID-19 is already creating,” the authors of the preliminary research wrote.

Future studies will touch on issues including the differing severity of projected earnings losses between young people in rich and poor countries, the groups of young people most likely to suffer the economic impacts of lost learning, and how the sacrifices associated with lost education contrast between young people and other parts of the population.

Upcoming research will consider COVID-19’s impact both in terms of a loss of schooling and potential mitigation through remote learning, Patrinos said in an email.

Authors of the research include Patrinos, Psacharopoulos, Brookings senior fellow Emiliana Vegas, and Victoria Collis, managing partner at River Path Associates, an international development firm.

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