Is Education a Public Good?

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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12 Comments.

  1. s. wallerstein (amos)

    The philosopher Raymond Geuss makes the argument for funding higher public education better than I can.

  2. “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 whole subject seems to depend on the very strange views that Americans have about government and society. Not every penny spent by the government will benefit all of its citizens equally. But it balances out. That’s the point.

  3. I have been both uneducated, and educated and can confirm educated is much better.
    It may not always bring one more money but it will generally enable one to endure, or deal with poverty, or other problems, better than the uneducated. A philosophy degree for instance, prepares one to deal with the poverty that a philosophy degree entails.

  4. As someone who holds a Masters degree I can say without a doubt that my college years held me back and were a complete waste of my time other then some great parties and sex.

  5. Emily Isalwaysright

    Trashing higher education should be seen as a barbaric violation of the fruits of culture. It should generate at least as much outrage as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001.

    In a catch-22, the kind of ignorance that wants to destroy higher education is the kind of ignorance that could benefit most from higher education. Anti-intellectualism, once it takes hold, spirals outward in a positive feedback loop. The murder of Piggy in “Lord of the Flies” is instructive.

    Too many people have bought into the myth that higher education is only a means to self-interested ends, and don’t consciously avail themselves of its cultural products. Nor are they aware of it when they inevitably do.

  6. NCN Articles of Interest: 2/10/2012 « National Creativity Network - pingback on February 10, 2012 at 11:16 am
  7. It is difficult to see any government & public expenditure more improtant than on eduction. It’s arguaeable more important than spending money on defence, health care or in creating jobs.

  8. Education is definitely a public good, in that it nurtures the shaping of talented youth, guiding their desires and focusing their energies, etc.

    Sadly, universities are more or less out of the business of providing education, and now provide mere credentials. Since the profligacy with which those credentials are handed out devalues them and almost ensures that the credentialed are, on average, less competent than they would have been when the credentials were harder to get, university credentials are probably not a public good, and are possibly a public harm.

  9. The Stone Philosophy Links - NYTimes.com - pingback on February 15, 2012 at 6:18 pm
  10. This objection, a version of which was advanced quite some time ago by Thoreau in his discussion of taxes, does have some merit.

    You failed to point out any.

    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).

    Why would you say that something is “surely” so when it obviously is surely not so? Unless “right to insist” merely refers to a right to speak what’s on your mind? You surely have no right to actually stop the spending of those taxes, nor to withhold your tax payments … if you did, they wouldn’t be taxes. Note that, in the case of sales taxes, if you withhold them you won’t get your goods, and in the case of payroll taxes, you’re powerless to avoid them.

    I ride a bicycle but pay a heavy tax toll to subsidize drivers. I think I could make a decent argument against that. But education? What an incredibly stupid idea that it’s not a public good … one would have to be a Republican or Libertarian or some other species of cretin to think that. An uneducated populace is much worse off, collectively, than an educated populace. The same goes for health care, another harebrained Libertarian bogeyman. Libertarianism is the ethic of the stone age.

  11. s. wallerstein (amos)

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/08/schools-we-can-envy/

    This article on Finish schools seems revelant to many of our discussions on education.

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