Fact check: Malawi really does have just 30,000 college graduates

I recently downloaded the entire 10% sample of the 2008 Malawi census from IPUMS. This is partly out of general curiosity about living standards here – for example, only 7.6 percent of the country has piped water (and only 3% have that water piped into their homes) and about 2/5 of the country drinks water from an unprotected source like a pond or an open well – but also to double-check the numbers from DHS on college attainment in the country.

The census figures are no more promising. Just 0.83% of the population has ever attended any school beyond the secondary level, and only 0.2% have college degrees or higher. That’s fewer than 30,000 people in the entire country.

Does that make higher education a smart investment for Malawi? For reasons I’ve laid out before, I’m not convinced. College graduates tend to end up in lucrative but socially underproductive jobs here – as accountants, NGO workers, or the like – rather than in positions where they might create jobs for the 99%+ of the country without an advanced education. Based on the census occupation categories, fewer than 20% are in jobs that sound at all entrepreneurial in nature (“Manager” or “Working proprietor”).

One way to look at that number is to compare it with people who have only a diploma and no college degree. A diploma is like an associate’s degree, and is a common substitute for a BA here when people can’t get spots at universities. There are around 60,000 diploma holders in Malawi, and just a shade under 10% work in entrepreneurial-sounding job types. So college leads to an improvement in participation in that kind of position, but not one we should be satisfied with: there are still fewer than 15,000 of these prospective entrepreneurs total, across both types of college degree. That’s less than one per thousand Malawians. The businesses they start would have to be inconceivably successful to do much for employment here.

Fixing access to higher education in Malawi would be a nice start, but if we don’t change the opportunities and incentives for graduates then it’s not much of a solution.


About Jason Kerwin

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