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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?Published in