The Value of Public Universities

One stock narrative in the media is that the cost of attending college has skyrocketed. This is true. There is also a stock narrative that this increase, at least for public universities, has been due to the cutting of public education funds. This certainly is part of the truth. Another important part is the cost of sustaining the every-growing and well paid administrative class that has ensconced (and perhaps enthroned) itself at colleges and universities. I will, however, focus primarily on the cutting of public funds.

The stock media narrative makes it clear why there was a cut to public education spending: the economy was brought down in flames by the too clever machinations of the world’s financial class. This narrative is, for the most part, true. Another narrative is that Republican state legislatures have cut deeply into the funding for public education. One professed reason for this is ideological: government spending must be cut, presumably to reduce the taxes paid by the job creators. A reason that is not openly professed is the monetization of education. Public universities are in competition with the for-profit colleges for (ironically) public funding, mostly in the form of federal financial aid and student loans. Degrading, downsizing and destroying public education allows the for-profit colleges to acquire more customers and more funding and these for-profits have been generous with their lobbying dollars (to Republicans and Democrats). Since I have written other essays on the general catastrophic failure that is the for-profit college, I will not pursue this matter here.

A third openly professed reason is also ideological: the idea that a college education is a private rather than a public good. This seems to be based on the view that the primary purpose of a college education is economic: for the student to be trained to fill a job.  It is also based on what can be regarded as a selfish value system—that value is measured solely in terms of how something serves a narrowly defined self-interest. In philosophy, this view is egoism and, when dignified with a moral theory, called ethical egoism (the idea that each person should act solely in her self-interest as opposed to acting, at least sometimes, from altruism).

Going along with this notion is the narrative that certain (mainly non-STEM) majors are useless. That is, they do not train a person to get a job. These two notions are usually combined into one stock narrative, which is often presented as something like “why should my tax dollars go to someone getting a degree in anthropology or, God forbid, philosophy?”

This professed ideology has had considerable impact on higher education. My adopted state of Florida has seen the usual story unfold: budget cuts to higher education, imposition of performance based funding (performance being defined primarily in terms of training the right sort of job fillers for the job creators), and the imposition of micro-managing assessment (which is universally regarded by anyone who actually teaches as pure bullshit) and so on.  When all this is combined with the ever-expanding administrative class, it becomes evident that public higher education in America is in real trouble.

At this point most readers will expect me to engage in my stock response in regards to the value of education. You know, the usual philosophical stuff about the unexamined life not being worth living, the importance to a democratic state of having an educated population and all the other stuff that is waved away with a dismissive gesture by those who know the true value of public education: private profit. Since I have written about these values elsewhere, I will not do so here. There is also the obvious fact that the people who believe in this sort of value already support education and those who do not will almost certainly not be swayed by any arguments I could make. Instead, I will endeavor to argue for the value of the public university in very practical, “real-world” terms.

First, the public university is important for the defense of the United States. While private, non-profit institutions do rather important research, the public universities have contributed a great deal to our defense technology, they train many of our officers, and they train many of the people who work in our intelligence agencies. Undermining the public university weakens the United States in ways that will damage our national defense. National defense certainly seems to be a public and not just a private good.

Second, large public universities are centers of scientific research that has great practical (that is, economic) value. This research includes medical research, physics, robotics, engineering and all areas that are recognized as having clear practical value. One sure way to ensure that the United States falls behind the rest of the world in these areas is to continue to degrade public universities. Being competitive in these areas does seem to be a public good, although it is obviously specific individuals who benefit the most.

Third, large public universities draw some of the best and brightest people from around the world. Many of these people stay in the United States and contribute a great deal—thus adding to the public good (while obviously benefiting themselves). Even those who return home are influenced by the United States—they learn English (if they do not already know it), they are exposed to American culture, they make friends with Americans and often develop a fondness for their school and the country. While these factors are hard to quantify, they do serve as advantage to the United States in economic, scientific, diplomatic and defense terms.

Fourth, having what was once the best public higher education system in the world gave the country considerable prestige and influence. While prestige is difficult to quantify, it certainly matters—humans are very much influenced by status. This can be regarded as a public good.

Fifth, there are the obvious economic advantages of a strong public higher education system. College educated citizens make more money and thus pay more taxes—thus contributing to the public good. While having a job is certainly a private good, there is also a considerable amount of public good. Businesses need employees and people need doctors, lawyers, engineers, psychiatrists, pilots, petroleum engineers, computer programmers, officers, and so on. As such, it would seem that the public university does not just serve the private good but the public good.

If this argument has merit, it would seem that the degrading of public higher education is damaging the public good and harming the country. As such, this needs to be reversed before the United States falls even more behind the competition.

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  1. s. wallerstein

    Higher education is a public good.

    However, I don’t think that we need to justify it in “real-world” terms.

    Anything which makes our world less stupid is a good. “Stupid” means alienated, focused on short-terms benefits, unexamined (yes), herd-mentality, group-thinking, etc.

    Public higher education has the potential to make our world less stupid. For-profit education can’t do that because the pursuit of profit is focused on short-term benefits, on paying the owners as much as possible, on maximizing monetary gain. Private non-profit higher education does have a role in making this world less stupid, but there is not enough of it around to do the job, so we do need public higher education.

  2. Kevin Henderson

    Great post. Public and private universities are of fundamental importance to America innovation and prosperity. People who would deny funding for higher education institutions need to consider the accruing disparities between people who have knowledge from those who do not. It almost feels like some people want to return to a pre-enlightenment age but they would hate the outcome of what they really wish.

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