A safety net to shape a nation’s future

If education is the great safety net for the future, those who slip through it are creating for the nation a disproportionate economic burden. But if ever there was a case for increased investment to future proof these at-risk groups and save money in the long term a recent study makes the case in clear and startling numbers.

Drop-outs and disengaged young Australians are costing taxpayers a staggering $18.8 billion through added demands on the crime and welfare systems. The social cost is even greater, which if you add lost earnings and health costs skyrockets to an estimated $50.5 billion across this group. 

The study from Victoria University's Mitchell Institute highlights the consequences and cost of one in eight Australians not attaining a year 12 qualification.

The statistics also show the worrying trend that leaving school early means these individuals are highly unlikely to return to study and training in adult life and many will be disengaged from full-time work, study or training for most of their lives.

By tracking 25 to 44 year olds from 2001-2014 it found that almost 90 per cent of men and 82 per cent of women who did not complete Year 12 did not return to study and training.

The implications are many when it comes to employment and many of the flow-on costs and consequences.

Employment is also far better for those with degrees or diplomas compared with early leavers. While as many as 80 per cent of those with a Bachelor’s degree or above were employed this dropped to less than half or only 44 per cent of those who did not reach year 12. They were also twice as likely to live in families dependent on government income support.

On the grimmer side of social repercussions, only 14 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds entering prison in 2009 had a year 12 qualification compared to 63 per cent of the general population.

Imagine the lives that could be changed with a $50 billion investment in an adaptive and early intervention approach to education drop outs, particularly one aimed at targeting the disengaged with life-skills, VET qualifications and early childhood education. But this is about a lot more than numbers or the economic sense of an investment that would be cheaper than building and running more and more prisons. But the important question worth answering is what we think we want the Australia of decades to come to look like.