Seal of the United States Department of Education

While higher education is generally regarded as a good (mainly because folks with college degrees make more than folks who lack such degrees), there has been considerable debate in the United States as to whether or not higher education is a public good.

The United States, like other Western democracies, subsidizes higher education through such means as grants and student loans. There are also numerous state schools that receive their funding primarily from public sources. This public support of education has generally been regarded as a legitimate function of the state (typically based on the view that higher education is a public good), but this has been called into question.

One stock objection against public funding of higher education is that some (or perhaps many) of the taxpayers will either not attend a public college or avail themselves of public funds for education. As such, their tax dollars are being spent in a way that does not benefit them and hence they have the right to insist that public funds not be used to support higher education.

This objection, a version of which was advanced quite some time ago by Thoreau in his discussion of taxes, does have some merit. After all, if the state is taking my money and spending it in ways that do not benefit me (or in ways that I do not approve of) then I would surely have the right to insist that this stop and that my money be spent in ways that benefit me (or that I pay less in taxes).

It might be replied that although my tax dollars might be spent on things that do not directly benefit me, as a citizen I have a duty to contribute to the general good. As a man, I will never get uterine cancer. As an adult, I will never have a birth defect.  However, it would seem odd of me to insist that the state stop spending public money in such areas merely because such spending will not benefit me directly. This can also be expanded beyond specific medical research to all those things that benefit other people but do not directly benefit me. This, as might be imagined, would include many things that those other people would regard as legitimate venues for public funding. As such, the fact that some folks do not pursue higher education at public institutes or making use of public funds hardly seems to justify not providing such funding.

It might be countered that higher education is a purely private good. After all, it could be argued, it would be as unreasonable to expect the state to subsidize my education as it would be for the state to subsidize my business, my crops or my hobbies. The advantages of my education are accrued solely by me and provide no public good-hence the state should not fund higher education on the basis of it being a public good.

One  reply to this is that funding higher education can be seen as purely self interested investing. People with college degrees generally have higher incomes than folks who do not and hence they contribute more tax revenues, thus paying back that investment many times over. Those who do not avail themselves of the public support for higher education gain directly by the fact that these other folks are contributing more in taxes than they would otherwise.

A second reply is that the people who do not avail themselves of public support for higher education benefit from the folks who do. After all, these people will need doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, teachers, and other educated people. Many of these educated folks will have been supported, to a degree, by public money (either directly or indirectly). As such, higher education does seem to be a definite public good.

A third reply is that publicly funded higher education contributes significantly to science, technology, medicine and other very practical and beneficial areas. As such, even the folks who do not avail themselves of public support for higher education gain direct advantages from the public spending in this area.

A fourth reply is that publicly funded higher education contributes to the education of citizens and provides a means by which those of lesser financial  means can achieve success, thus making this a public good.

One final objection is that while such funding might have some good results, why should “Joe the plumber” be forced to pay the bill for “Ashley the anthropologist” or “Arthur the art historian”? Or, even worse, why should “Joe” be forced to pay the bill for folks who never graduate or who never get a job?

This objection does have some bite. After all, the budget cuts caused by the meltdown and the currently dominant ideology (which seems to be “punish everyone else for the sins of the financial folks”) mean that less money is being allocated for higher education and it would make sense to ensure that this money is well spent. As might be imagined, the same concern can be raised regarding the billions spent on defense, business subsidies, special interests and so on. In fact, it might be argued that it seems odd to be  really worried that Ashley might get a small Pell grant to study anthropology when vast sums of public money have literally been lost elsewhere.

In reply, while it is reasonable to be concerned about money being wasted, the fact that some people might pursue degrees that some people look down on and the fact that some people might not complete school or get a job do not suffice to show that education should not be supported by public money. To use the obvious analogy, the fact that all investments do not yield a profit is not reason to stop investing. To use another analogy, the fact that all efforts do not succeed is not an argument to stop trying.

Looked at in purely “practical” terms, higher education certainly repays the public good for the investment made in this area.  Obviously, not every investment pays off-but that is hardly to be expected.

Naturally, there are also the other benefits of higher education that are often seen as “intangible”, but a strong enough case has been made for public support that the addition of these reasons would  be more cake piled on a well frosted cake.


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