Realizing the returns to schooling: How COVID-19 and school closures are threatening women's economic future

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Sierra Leone, Children in a classroom, ready to learn. Sierra Leone, Children in a classroom, ready to learn.

COVID-19 is threatening the gains being made in girls’ education. Urgent action is needed to ensure that girls and women can realize the returns to their schooling. 

Returns to schooling for women are high – so says Bono and the research. A couple of years ago, in an essay in Time magazine Bono wrote: “Give girls just one additional year of schooling and their wages go up almost 12 percent.” He said the same thing a year before that at the Munich Security Conference. The source of that quote was a 2014 World Bank paper and a recent update confirms this is still the case. At the same time, girls are staying in school longer and learning more. However, these gains are at risk as COVID-19 is presenting a crisis within a crisis for girls’ education.

On average, one additional year of schooling increases women’s returns to education by 12 percent compared with 10 percent for men. The gap in favor of women has increased by a percentage point over the last decade. Returns at the primary level are about the same for men and women but then diverge at the secondary level – 9 percent for women versus 7 percent for men – and at the tertiary level – 17 percent for women and 15 percent for men. These returns are higher for women than for men in all economies and all regions. At the higher education level returns have increased overall, but particularly for women

returns to education for women figure 1

The longstanding disadvantage for girls in terms of enrollment has been declining over time, which has led to a reversal of the gender gap in educational attainment. Nevertheless, in terms of the number of expected years of schooling, girls are still disadvantaged in some contexts, including in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and in fragile and conflict-affected states and low-income countries. 

The quality of education received by boys and girls is an important determinant of their access to higher levels of schooling and their future earnings. Girls have caught up to boys in many dimensions in recent decades and, in high- and middle-income countries, now outperform boys in terms of learning achievement. This has led to a “reverse gap” where girls outperform boys in both enrollment rates and learning outcomes – a female learning premium. Nevertheless, girls’ outcomes remain lower in some contexts, including in low-income countries.  

COVID-19 may put a temporary halt to this progress. COVID-19-induced school closures may slow or reverse these gains and may further prevent girls and women from realizing the potential returns – representing a “hidden” future cost. 

The World Bank is forecasting lower levels of schooling, learning, and future earnings because of school closures due to COVID-19. Learning poverty is expected to increase significantly. A growing body of studies from high-income countries including Belgium, Netherlands and the United Kingdom have already found losses of learning as well as growing inequality.

For women and girls, who are already being significantly negatively affected by the pandemic, there is a particular risk in the realm of education. The pandemic puts girls at an increased risk of dropping out of school, being vulnerable to domestic violence and other Gender Based Violence (GBV) threats, facing child marriage and early pregnancy, and being exploited as child labor. UNESCO has projected that 11 million girls may never return to school following the pandemic. As we learned during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, girls are more at risk than boys of missing out on educational opportunities as a result of school disruptions, which can put them at a persistent disadvantage in terms of accumulating human capital. Predictions vary as to how many girls will drop out of school and the extent to which learning poverty might increase more for girls than for boys, but the risk of long-lasting adverse effects is high. 

Before COVID-19, returns to education were expected to increase for many more women in the decades to come as today’s students entered the labor market. Returns of 12 percent as predicted by the WB analysis (and Bono) are huge in terms of lifetime earnings, but if they are significantly reduced by the combined effect of school closures, COVID-19 illnesses and death, and recession, then advances for women will be derailed for decades ahead. We know that, during crises, returns to higher education tend to increase, and if women are unable to access higher education because of the pandemic, then they will not be able to realize these higher returns.

Urgent action is needed to prevent further school closures, mitigate or reverse learning losses, and get girls back in school. For many girls, especially the youngest, the learning lost during the pandemic can be limited and even reversed by improving distance education during school closures and by implementing learning recovery programs such as Teach to the Right Level and tutoring, which the evidence has shown to be effective. However, for older girls, the risk of dropping out is real, and they may leave school before their learning losses can be recovered (a study of the impact of school closures on high school students in Milwaukee found this to be the case). The risk of dropping out needs to be addressed right away by providing extra support to students and their families to ensure that they stay in school, making sure to target girls as being at a high risk of dropout and learning losses.
The evidence on what interventions are effective at getting girls in school and continuing to learn shows that initiatives that increase access and learning for all students benefit girls. Research highlights that the most effective interventions to improve access are those that reduce the cost of schooling. For improving learning outcomes, interventions that support improvements in pedagogy have been some of the most effective on improving girls’ learning outcomes.  

Targeted support may also be needed to overcome constraints specific to girls, especially adolescent girls. For example, the Keeping Girls in School Program in Zambia provides cash transfers to families of adolescent girls so they can afford to keep their daughters in school and has set up an early warning system to identify girls at risk of dropping out and of other vulnerabilities.  

It is critical that we prevent the re-emergence of a learning gap between girls and boys during the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent all students from dropping out. If they do drop out, it is imperative to give them enough support so that they can find ways to continue their education by investing in an education approach based on lifelong learning.


Raja Bentaouet Kattan

Advisor to the Education Global Practice

Claudio E. Montenegro

Development Research Group, World Bank

Harry A. Patrinos

Senior Adviser, Education

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