Are SEL Programs Worth the Time & Money? A Look at the Return on Investment

Currently, there is a lot of buzz around developing the social and emotional skills of students. Many research studies demonstrate that students benefit from SEL programming and these programs can lead to better grades, higher attendance rates, and increased positive behavior. Yet with ever-tightening budgets, district leaders often wonder–what is the return on investment of SEL programming and assessments?

Columbia University’s Center for Cost-Benefit Analysis conducted a research study to answer this very question. Researchers performed a cost-benefit analysis on six prominent SEL programs, chosen both because of their wide use in schools and to ensure a diversity of student populations, goals, and outcome measures. Outcomes included higher lifetime earnings, improved health (mental and physical), and reduced juvenile crime. The study found that across all of the interventions analyzed, benefits outweighed the costs of the programs by a ratio of 11:1. This means that for every $1 spent on effective SEL programming, the return on investment is $11 in long-term benefits to students, schools, and communities.

Currently in its 28th year, The Seattle Social Development Project is a longitudinal study designed to understand and promote healthy behaviors and positive social development among school-aged children. Researchers found that SEL interventions (now called SOAR and published by Chaning Bete) used with study participants in grades 1-6 lead to a return on investment of more than $2,500 per student. Measured outcomes included greater likelihood to graduate from high school, decreased rates of grade retention, and less criminal activity and substance abuse.

A third study looked at the Life Skills project, a program that helps students build SEL skills in the areas of self-management, substance abuse prevention, and developing social skills. The results of the study showed a return on investment of nearly $1,300 per student. For every $1 invested, there was a return of $37.

A growing body of research shows that investment in effective SEL programs and assessments pay off not only through improved educational achievement but also with long-term benefits to society such as reductions in violent crime and drug abuse–activities that cost communities a great deal of money. By helping students develop strong social and emotional skills, we are giving them the tools they need to succeed and become productive members of society–and that outcome is priceless.

Contact our SEL advisors to learn more!