When up in Northern Kenya, driving on a Sunday evening, my co-passengers and I saw a sight that seemed perfectly normal to them, but odd to me. There were several groups of young people, all walking alongside the road with bags. I learned that these people were students that lived in remote villages, and were walking into the main towns that night to be ready for classes the next day. Apparently the standard procedure for these youths was to head back to their villages for the weekend, and then return in time for classes Monday. It depends on the village, but some make a trek of 10-15 km every Friday and Sunday, on foot.
One of the challenges that our organization has been thinking about lately is how to encourage children to go to school. There are many organizations that have all kinds of advice to offer on the subject; some say free uniforms, scholarships, or having parents sign a pledge is the way to go. Maybe kids can’t afford to go to school, maybe they don’t see the value in it. But the explanation that I think most accurately identifies why at times children don’t go to school is simple: in many cases, sending one’s kids to school is hard work.
Every week, the children have to walk several kilometers to go to school. Maybe if the instruction is in their second or third language (English is everyone’s third language here, after the language of their tribe, and Swahili) it’s difficult to really understand the lectures, you have to pay a sizable amount to send your kids, and there is work that could also be done at home. In short, sending children to school is difficult. An appropriate analogy I’ve heard is that it’s like going to the gym in the States. Everyone sees the benefits, but it’s a lot tougher to actually get yourself to go on a repeated basis.
Compare this with the United States. When I was a student, there was a bus that came to within two blocks of my house. The classes were taught in English, my first language. It is a law that everyone has to go to school, and in most cases, the government has ways of enforcing this rule. Basically, in the States, in most areas, the status quo is that you go to school and it requires some real effort to do otherwise.
Behavioral economists focus heavily on what the “status quo” is when it comes to decision-making—what happens if the average person chooses not to make an active decision? For example, consider retirement plans with a company. Suppose you have a form that either a) allows you to opt-in to a retirement plan by checking a box, or b) assumes that you want to opt-in, but allows you to opt-out by simply checking a box. 30% more of the population will have a retirement plan in option b, simply because the status quo was to opt in.
In the context of attending school then, it’s easy to imagine how the status quo might affect people. In the States, you are “automatically enrolled” in school, and it requires some real effort to opt-out (with exceptions, to be sure). In contrast, in many developing countries, you have to actively opt-in to the school, and go through many steps to make sure your children attend. It’s perhaps no surprise given this information that school enrollment rates are much lower in developing countries. While supplying additional resources is clearly necessary, it’s also important to think about ways of making school enrollment the status quo at an institutional level.