What Is the Public Good That Justifies Public Funding of Universal College?

 

As so many people are calling for public (taxpayer) funding for universal college education (loan forgiveness, “free” tuition, etc.), what is the broad public good that justifies public funding of universal college attendance? The broad social benefit? The practical challenges of public funding of college are extensively argued elsewhere, so there is no point to rehashing them here. Instead, what are we trying to accomplish by encouraging everyone to attend college? What is the public goal?

In the United States, primary school education (grades 1 – 8) became publicly funded at least in part on the belief that a republic of free citizens functions only if most of those citizens have some basic capabilities to be able to conduct business among themselves and inform themselves so they could choose effective elected representatives: Read and write at a basic level, do basic arithmetic, know some amount of science and history, have some understanding of how government is supposed to work, and a few other topics.

I suppose I can grasp that as society became more complex in the late 19th century and into the 20th century the basic knowledge expectations for a functioning citizen forced the expansion of publicly funded education into secondary schools (grades 9 – 12).

But what is the “public benefit” of universal college today? Has society in the early 21st century gotten more complicated in a way that four additional years of education are necessary to produce citizens capable of functioning as free people in a republic? Evidence suggests the opposite may be true. We keep getting glimpses that many people come out of college with less civic knowledge than they had going in, and with less ability to function as free citizens in a republic – that college may be detrimental to our functioning republic.

Many years ago I attended a publicly funded “research university.” The justification for public funding of the university was that the state’s overall economy was improved by proximity to all the knowledge being generated at the research university, and the improved economy benefited all the residents of the state. Research was the primary purpose of the university. Student education was explicitly only a secondary goal, mostly a byproduct of the university’s research activities. The public benefit of a research university is specific to certain types of universities, and the presence of certain types of professors and students. It is not a justification for broad funding for everybody to attend college as students.

We hear that college graduates earn much more money over their lifetimes than do people who do not graduate from college. But that is a private benefit – an argument for private investment by individual students or their sponsors, not for broad funding for everybody to attend college. With a measurable return-on-investment, investing now in order to produce higher future income is a great market opportunity, and does not need government subsidies. Also, any potential public benefit of a higher income population in and of itself seems both doubtful and remote. I’m skeptical whether if college attendance becomes more universal, universally higher incomes will continue to result. While that would collapse the market opportunity, it also collapses the argument for why taxpayers should make that investment.

So what is the broad public good that would come from universal college education that justifies public funding of college students?

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  1. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Not one thing. All it would do is dilute the value of a degree.  There’s one thing they could do about student loan debt, though. Make the school have skin in the game. Make the school feel it if the kid they loaned money to can’t pay it back. We might see a sharp reduction in the offering of degrees in Feminist Dance Theory and  The Films of Keanu Reeves.

    • #1
  2. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    Full Size Tabby:

    So what is the broad public good that would come from universal college education that justifies public funding of college students?

    There is none.

    At the same time, the academy-government conspiracy of increased prices and increased student loan availability led to a perfect example of predatory lending.  Both should be punished for it.  When a student without parental or other financial support is faced with a bill for tens of thousands of dollars per year and the “financial aid” office offers the lie “just sign here and you won’t have to worry about paying until you’re making a good enough income to pay it,” the student generally signs a mortgage that can follow for 20 years after graduation.  And the first job often doesn’t offer a good enough salary to support the loan payments and getting on with adult life.  It’s an ugly situation and it was driven, as usual, by a public-private conspiracy relying on third party payment.

    • #2
  3. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    So do the advocates of universal college not provide any reasoning for why there should be universal taxpayer funded college?

    As a lawyer I try to understand what the opposing party’s arguments are. I have not seen the arguments for why there should be universal college. But I’m not sure if that’s because I don’t read enough of the appropriate information sources, or if I just missed the arguments. All the arguments I see are about “how,” and presuppose a “why,” a presupposition I just don’t get. 

    • #3
  4. Hank Rhody is a different guy altogether Member
    Hank Rhody is a different guy altogether
    @Misthiocracy

    Full Size Tabby:

    In the United States, primary school education (grades 1 – 8) became publicly funded at least in part on the belief that a republic of free citizens functions only if most of those citizens have some basic capabilities to be able to conduct business among themselves and inform themselves so they could choose effective elected representatives: Read and write at a basic level, do basic arithmetic, know some amount of science and history, have some understanding of how government is supposed to work, and a few other topics.

     

    Public schooling was also introduced during a period of high immigration, and it was thought necessary to teach all the new immigrants how to be Americans.

    • #4
  5. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Let me suggest some arguments:

    1. “My time getting my degree in sociology was the most fulfilling of my [otherwise empty and pointless] life, and everyone should have that opportunity.” This is a sort of false generalization coupled with the unexamined belief that money from the government is ‘free’. 

    2. Rich kids go to college. Wealth is an inequitable privilege. Therefore poor kids should go to college.

    3. High status kids go to college. I want my kids (and myself) to have high status. Therefore my kids should go to college. If I can make all taxpayers pick up the bill it will cost me less. 

    4. We need trained engineers (or whatever) to operate our company. It would be really expensive if we were to pay for the training ourselves, so we’ll let the taxpayer pick up the slack. 

    • #5
  6. Hank Rhody is a different guy altogether Member
    Hank Rhody is a different guy altogether
    @Misthiocracy

    genferei (View Comment):
    2. Rich kids go to college. Wealth is an inequitable privilege. Therefore poor kids should go to college.

    Studies have shown that even in countries where post-secondary education is “free” rich kids go to college and poor kids don’t.  Ergo, it’s a subsidy for the rich.

    Apologies that I don’t have a citation to back up the claim. I don’t remember where I saw the statistics.

    • #6
  7. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    If we don’t offer universal college, how will anyone get a high school education? 

    • #7
  8. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Hank Rhody is a different guy … (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby:

    In the United States, primary school education (grades 1 – 8) became publicly funded at least in part on the belief that a republic of free citizens functions only if most of those citizens have some basic capabilities to be able to conduct business among themselves and inform themselves so they could choose effective elected representatives: Read and write at a basic level, do basic arithmetic, know some amount of science and history, have some understanding of how government is supposed to work, and a few other topics.

     

    Public schooling was also introduced during a period of high immigration, and it was thought necessary to teach all the new immigrants how to be Americans.

    Oh, the ironity! 

    • #8
  9. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    At some point, if college becomes more or less a setup where a “student” points to a college and says “that’s where the government money should go,” I would expect it to rather quickly devolve into kickbacks.

    To the “student,” that is.

    • #9
  10. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    genferei (View Comment):

    Let me suggest some arguments:

    1. “My time getting my degree in sociology was the most fulfilling of my [otherwise empty and pointless] life, and everyone should have that opportunity.” This is a sort of false generalization coupled with the unexamined belief that money from the government is ‘free’.

    2. Rich kids go to college. Wealth is an inequitable privilege. Therefore poor kids should go to college.

    3. High status kids go to college. I want my kids (and myself) to have high status. Therefore my kids should go to college. If I can make all taxpayers pick up the bill it will cost me less.

    4. We need trained engineers (or whatever) to operate our company. It would be really expensive if we were to pay for the training ourselves, so we’ll let the taxpayer pick up the slack.

    I appreciate the effort. These are all wealth transfer arguments, not general public benefit arguments. And they’re all about me getting benefit, not about a generalized public benefit. But I recognize that to a disturbingly large number of people a purpose of government is to forcibly transfer wealth from those who have it to those who don’t. 

    I’m so old fashioned I think for the most part government force should be used only for those things that benefit all, such as national defense to keep all safe, police to keep local peace and safety, roads to allow all to get around, fire department so the whole town doesn’t go up in flames.

    • #10
  11. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Universal college is another bad idea, regardless of where it comes from.  Forget about diluting the value of a degree.  I don’t want to see people who shouldn’t be in college in the first place get a free ride to party hearty on my taxes until they flunk out – which could take 1, 2, or even 3 years . . .

    • #11
  12. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Stad (View Comment):

    Universal college is another bad idea, regardless of where it comes from. Forget about diluting the value of a degree. I don’t want to see people who shouldn’t be in college in the first place get a free ride to party hearty on my taxes until they flunk out – which could take 1, 2, or even 3 years . . .

    Optimist!  It might take them 4, or 5, or 6 years to fail!

    • #12
  13. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    TBA (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody is a different guy … (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby:

    In the United States, primary school education (grades 1 – 8) became publicly funded at least in part on the belief that a republic of free citizens functions only if most of those citizens have some basic capabilities to be able to conduct business among themselves and inform themselves so they could choose effective elected representatives: Read and write at a basic level, do basic arithmetic, know some amount of science and history, have some understanding of how government is supposed to work, and a few other topics.

    Public schooling was also introduced during a period of high immigration, and it was thought necessary to teach all the new immigrants how to be Americans.

    Oh, the ironity!

    One of the main reasons for compulsory public school as the nation moved from agricultural to industrial was to teach the discipline required in the industrial assembly line process. Missing employees in the assembly lines can be very disruptive and costly. Don’t y’all remember the bell ringing to start class and ringing again at the end.

    • #13
  14. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    genferei (View Comment):

    Let me suggest some arguments:

    1. “My time getting my degree in sociology was the most fulfilling of my [otherwise empty and pointless] life, and everyone should have that opportunity.” This is a sort of false generalization coupled with the unexamined belief that money from the government is ‘free’.

    2. Rich kids go to college. Wealth is an inequitable privilege. Therefore poor kids should go to college.

    3. High status kids go to college. I want my kids (and myself) to have high status. Therefore my kids should go to college. If I can make all taxpayers pick up the bill it will cost me less.

    4. We need trained engineers (or whatever) to operate our company. It would be really expensive if we were to pay for the training ourselves, so we’ll let the taxpayer pick up the slack.

    I appreciate the effort. These are all wealth transfer arguments, not general public benefit arguments. And they’re all about me getting benefit, not about a generalized public benefit. But I recognize that to a disturbingly large number of people a purpose of government is to forcibly transfer wealth from those who have it to those who don’t.

    I’m so old fashioned I think for the most part government force should be used only for those things that benefit all, such as national defense to keep all safe, police to keep local peace and safety, roads to allow all to get around, fire department so the whole town doesn’t go up in flames.

    I suppose next you’re gonna bring up that consi- the consti… that constipation thing the fondling fathers wrote down. 

    • #14
  15. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    I object to subsidizing someone else’s kid’s four year party.   In the past two years I have known two bright, hardworking girls leave college and go to work, and another one who is still in school and miserable. The latter is sticking it out for the next few weeks until she graduates with a useless degree only because her mother did not go to college and insisted that she go.  Our son has no interest in college; he would not do well there, and is gloriously happy in a vocational program on a 4,000 acre cattle ranch in Idaho.

    Of course, now we have to figure out how to use the 529 funds set aside for college. 

     

    • #15
  16. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    It would be easier if we just gave money to people for their pledge to vote Democrat from now on.  

    • #16
  17. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Fake John/Jane Galt (View Comment):

    It would be easier if we just gave money to people for their pledge to vote Democrat from now on.

    That would save a lot of “overhead,” for sure.

    Reminds me of some of the apartments I managed, where it seemed like the owners wanted to find people who would pay them rent, but live somewhere else.  Imagine the profit margin!

    • #17
  18. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Fake John/Jane Galt (View Comment):

    It would be easier if we just gave money to people for their pledge to vote Democrat from now on.

    That would save a lot of “overhead,” for sure.

    Reminds me of some of the apartments I managed, where it seemed like the owners wanted to find people who would pay them rent, but live somewhere else. Imagine the profit margin!

    Yes, but I suspect the overhead and the leaky grift is part the charm.  Which is why it will not happen.

    • #18
  19. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    I appreciate the effort. These are all wealth transfer arguments, not general public benefit arguments. And they’re all about me getting benefit, not about a generalized public benefit.

    Exactly.

    How about:

    1. A populace made up of fully-rounded human beings is of general public benefit.
    2. The college experience produces fully-rounded human beings.
    3. Therefore the college experience should be made available to all, regardless of their economic resources.

    This, too, is a deeply flawed argument, of course – points 1 and 2 are highly debatable and point 3 does not logically follow (unless college is the only way to make these ideal citizens).

    I strongly suspect that the real reason for the ‘college for all on the public dime’ movement is the usual middle-class greed, with a dash of social envy.

    • #19
  20. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    genferei (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    I appreciate the effort. These are all wealth transfer arguments, not general public benefit arguments. And they’re all about me getting benefit, not about a generalized public benefit.

    Exactly.

    How about:

    1. A populace made up of fully-rounded human beings is of general public benefit.
    2. The college experience produces fully-rounded human beings.
    3. Therefore the college experience should be made available to all, regardless of their economic resources.

    This, too, is a deeply flawed argument, of course – points 1 and 2 are highly debatable and point 3 does not logically follow (unless college is the only way to make these ideal citizens).

    I strongly suspect that the real reason for the ‘college for all on the public dime’ movement is the usual middle-class greed, with a dash of social envy.

    Thank you. I can imagine though people believe points 1 and 2. 

    • #20
  21. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    Universal college is another bad idea, regardless of where it comes from. Forget about diluting the value of a degree. I don’t want to see people who shouldn’t be in college in the first place get a free ride to party hearty on my taxes until they flunk out – which could take 1, 2, or even 3 years . . .

    Optimist! It might take them 4, or 5, or 6 years to fail!

    LOL took me only 4 1/2 years to get my BS . . .

    • #21
  22. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Fake John/Jane Galt (View Comment):

    It would be easier if we just gave money to people for their pledge to vote Democrat from now on.

    We pretty much do that already . . .

    • #22
  23. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    Hank Rhody is a different guy … (View Comment):

    genferei (View Comment):
    2. Rich kids go to college. Wealth is an inequitable privilege. Therefore poor kids should go to college.

    Studies have shown that even in countries where post-secondary education is “free” rich kids go to college and poor kids don’t. Ergo, it’s a subsidy for the rich.

    Apologies that I don’t have a citation to back up the claim. I don’t remember where I saw the statistics.

    That seems logical. Unless “free” college includes living expenses (shhh! I know, I shouldn’t give them ideas), kids from wealthier families are still the most likely to be able to stay out of the paid labor market for the time it takes to attend college.  

    • #23
  24. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    I’m suspecting that I will never accept willingly where we are going, I’ll just increase my level of disengagement which is already high, and I’m old. Mostly I’m intrigued with what is happening and I’m watching, we have such characters in this play.

    • #24
  25. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Full Size Tabby: But what is the “public benefit” of universal college today?

    To accomplish the literacy goals the public education system neglected to accomplish in the first 12 years, but only for a subset of the population and at tremendous cost.

    An additional benefit is to inculcate Demoncratic Values into a population willing to become flying monkeys for Demoncratic front groups.

    • #25
  26. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Corporate America shares a lot of the blame for the attitude that everyone must go to college.  There are jobs that one cannot get unless one has a college degree, and it makes no difference what the degree is for.  I totally get that if you are hiring an X-ray technician, an architect, or a thousand other positions, you want applicants who have studied in that field.  I do not get when a job doesn’t specify what courses you should have taken or what your major was, you just need a degree in something.  Anything.  It is just elitism.   It is a rare day when you hear me whine about “elitism” or “corporate America,” but there you have it.

    I am leaving my current job in about a month because I am moving to another state.  Out of curiosity I looked at the job posting for my replacement.  It says you need to be a high school graduate or have a GED, and a college degree is preferred.  But what for? I am a produce inspector at a grocery distribution warehouse.  If upon graduating high school, instead of continuing to work in my family’s small business I had gone to college, how on Earth would that have made me better at my current job?  I doubt any college classes I would have taken back in the 80’s would have taught me how to recognize dehydration in strawberries or how to fill out a report on substandard eggplants.

    • #26
  27. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby: But what is the “public benefit” of universal college today?

    To accomplish the literacy goals the public education system neglected to accomplish in the first 12 years, but only for a subset of the population and at tremendous cost.

    An additional benefit is to inculcate Demoncratic Values into a population willing to become flying monkeys for Demoncratic front groups.

    This is so appropriate here…  (considering its origin)

     

    • #27
  28. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Corporate America shares a lot of the blame for the attitude that everyone must go to college. There are jobs that one cannot get unless one has a college degree, and it makes no difference what the degree is for. I totally get that if you are hiring an X-ray technician, an architect, or a thousand other positions, you want applicants who have studied in that field. I do not get when a job doesn’t specify what courses you should have taken or what your major was, you just need a degree in something. Anything. It is just elitism. It is a rare day when you hear me whine about “elitism” or “corporate America,” but there you have it.

    I am leaving my current job in about a month because I am moving to another state. Out of curiosity I looked at the job posting for my replacement. It says you need to be a high school graduate or have a GED, and a college degree is preferred. But what for? I am a produce inspector at a grocery distribution warehouse. If upon graduating high school, instead of continuing to work in my family’s small business I had gone to college, how on Earth would that have made me better at my current job? I doubt any college classes I would have taken back in the 80’s would have taught me how to recognize dehydration in strawberries or how to fill out a report on substandard eggplants.

    Well, if you had gone to college, you might have BECOME an eggplant, so there is that.

    • #28
  29. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    OK – another one:

    Colleges are key institutions for the formation of policy and the future leaders of civil society. Therefore wide participation in college leads to a more inclusive and democratic system. To exclude people from college because they do not have the means to attend, or to have them distracted by the thought of having to pay back loans, is to detract from this key function. Therefore college should be open and free to all. 

    (Insofar as this argument has any merit, it rather calls for the dismantling or at discrediting of universities than their universalization.)

    • #29
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