This paper challenges beliefs in the international development community that tertiary education has little role in promoting poverty alleviation. It reviews evidence about the impact that tertiary education can have on economic growth and poverty reduction, with a focus on the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. Because of a belief that primary and secondary schooling are more important than tertiary education for poverty reduction, the international development community has encouraged African governments’ relative neglect of higher education. Recent evidence suggests, however, that higher education can produce both public and private benefits. The private benefits for individuals are well established, and include better employment prospects, higher salaries, and a greater ability to save and invest. These benefits may result in better health and improved quality of life.
In recent years, organizations such as the World Bank and major donor governments have begun to reconsider their exclusive focus on primary education and are now reaching out to secondary and tertiary education, as the balance between poverty reduction and growth promotion is adjusted within development assistance strategies. There are signs of progress for higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa, and some African countries have put in place innovative policies to strengthen tertiary education systems. But this progress is limited in comparison with the progress of other world regions. This may result from insufficient understanding of the positive effects that higher education can have on economic development. The findings of this paper suggest that more investment in higher education may be justified, while more research into the role of higher education in development is certainly warranted.