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Sinking Education: Access to Education in the Marshall Islands

Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report provides data related to out-of-school children around the world. While the global average of out-of-school children has been decreasing for both primary and secondary school children, some countries have experienced steep increases in the number of out-of-school children in recent years. The Marshall Islands reported that 24% of primary school children were out-of-school in 2016, nearly three times the global average of 8.2%. Furthermore, the Marshall Islands reported a higher than average out-of-school rate for children in secondary school (UNESCO, n.d.).

Why are there such high rates of out-of-school children in the Marshall Islands? What factors impede access to education in the Marshall Islands?


The Marshall Islands, a chain of islands and atolls in the North Pacific with a population of just over 50,000 inhabitants, present unique challenges to providing primary and secondary education. Access to education remains a persistent challenge, not only in the Marshall Islands but several other Pacific Island nations, due to countries being made up of many islands spread across a vast geographic area.

In 1986, the Marshall Islands gained independence from the United States. Following independence, the Marshall Islands and the United States signed the Compact of Free Association agreement (Kormann, 2020). Under this agreement, the United States maintains a military base on one of the atolls. In turn, the United States provides the Marshall Islands with significant funding for education as well as several other areas of development (UNICEF, 2017).

Education Challenges

When it comes to access to education, the Marshall Islands face a number of challenges. Poverty remains relatively high on the outer islands with no or limited access to basic resources such as drinking water and electricity. Fishing and farming are often the only jobs available on outer islands and these demanding jobs may require families to rely on their children for extra help or income, preventing them from attending school (Children of Marshall Islands, n.d.). Health and nutrition also impact the ability of children to attend school with stunting being a common affliction among children and other illnesses impacting their cognitive abilities (World Bank, 2019).

However, the greatest challenge impacting the Marshall Islands, contributing to several educational problems, is the geographic spread and range of development on the separate islands. The outer, sparsely populated islands provide unique challenges regarding access to education. At the beginning of the Education for All initiative, the Ministry of Education set access to all levels of education as a major priority. Transportation from outer islands to the urban centers, where most of the schools were located, was unreliable and expensive (UNESCO, 2015). To begin to address the access issue, it was determined that more schools would have to be built, focusing specifically on the outer islands (Ministry of Education, n.d.).

While a majority of the population lives in the urban centers located on Majuro and Kwajalein, there are only 15 public schools serving this large student population (UNICEF, 2017). This results in overcrowded urban schools, which decreases the quality of education and availability of resources such as books (UN Human Rights, 2018).

The Ministry of Education established 65 public schools on 20 of the outer islands to increase access to education for rural students. These schools are often serving very small student populations (Ministry of Education, 2008). They also bring a new set of challenges: multiple grades in one classroom; teachers teaching subjects in which they are not familiar; and limited classroom resources (UNESCO, 2015).

While discussions have proposed consolidating schools with small student populations on rural islands, this does not address or correct the issue of access and what that would mean for students who live on islands without schools. Consequently, the issue of students being out-of-school because they don’t have access to schools will continue.   

Other Challenges

Of course, there is only so much the Marshall Islands and international development organizations can do. New challenges have also arisen in recent years or become more dire to address.


Migration has become a popular option for Marshallese citizens. Under the Compact of Free Association agreement, Marshallese citizens can, without a visa, live and work in the United States. In Arkansas alone, there is an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Marshallese citizens (Kormann, 2020). Those who choose to remain in the Marshall Islands rely heavily on remittances from their family abroad (Kormann, 2020). This is relevant to education on the Marshall Islands because as more families leave, schools on outer islands risk being closed, limiting access to families who stay.

Climate Change

Climate change has increasingly become a vital concern for many Pacific Island nations. The Marshall Islands sit a mere six feet above sea level, severely threatening life on the islands (Kormann, 2020). In 2013, major flooding closed schools for nearly 2 weeks to provide shelter to families who lost their homes. Droughts and severe storms have increased in frequency (Kormann, 2020). This continues to hinder access to education as classes can’t be held, because school buildings have become unsafe to be in and already limited resources are diverted to more pressing concerns (UNICEF 2017). 

While information and data from this area of the world remains scarce, the Marshall Islands did begin addressing the education access issues by building more schools. However, compounding factors, such as the poor quality of education, enticing migration opportunities to the United States that are detrimental to students who remain in Marshall Islands, and the increased risks associated with climate change, have caught the Marshall Islands in a cycle it can’t seem to escape.

What the Marshall Islands may need now is a way to keep education afloat.  


Children of Marshall Islands. (n.d.) Humanium. Retrieved from https://www.humanium.org/en/marshall-islands-2/

Davenport, C. (2015, December 1). The Marshall Islands are disappearing. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/02/world/The-Marshall-Islands-Are-Disappearing.html

Kormann, C. (2020, January 10). The cost of fleeing climate change. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/the-cost-of-fleeing-climate-change-marshall-islands-arkansas

Ministry of Education. (2008). The Republic of the Marshall Islands: education for all mid-decade assessment. Retrieved from https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000221791

Ministry of Education. (n.d.). Republic of the Marshall Islands: education for all national action plan 2002-2005. Retrieved from http://www.paddle.usp.ac.fj/cgi-bin/paddle?e=d-010off-paddle–00-1–0—0-10-TX–4——-0-11l–11-en-50—20-home—00-3-1-000–0-0-11-0utfZz-8-00&a=file&d=rmi004

UN Human Rights. (2018, January 29). Committee on the rights of the child examines report of the Marshall Islands. Retrieved from https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22615&LangID=E

UNESCO. (2015). Education for all 2015 national review report: Marshall Islands. Retrieved from https://unesdoc.unesco.org/in/documentViewer.xhtml?v=2.1.196&id=p::usmarcdef_0000229722&file=/in/rest/annotationSVC/DownloadWatermarkedAttachment/attach_import_04f01fa1-2c72-45f2-9266-fe233c276766%3F_%3D229722eng.pdf&locale=en&multi=true&ark=/ark:/48223/pf0000229722/PDF/229722eng.pdf#%5B%7B%22num%22%3A75%2C%22gen%22%3A0%7D%2C%7B%22name%22%3A%22XYZ%22%7D%2Cnull%2Cnull%2C0%5D

UNESCO. (n.d.). Global education monitoring report. Retrieved from https://www.education-progress.org/en/articles/access/

UNICEF. (2017). Situation analysis of children in the Marshall Islands. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/pacificislands/media/1146/file/Situation-Analysis-of-Children-Marshall-Islands.pdf

World Bank. (2019, November 7). Human capital in the Pacific Islands and Papua New Guinea. Retrieved from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/11/07/human-capital-in-the-pacific-islands-and-papua-new-guinea

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