As published in The New York Times
Who Should Pay for Higher Education?
By HOWARD COHEN
Over the past two decades the balance of cost sharing for public higher education has shifted dramatically toward the student. Twenty years ago the state typically paid about two-thirds of the cost of undergraduate, in-state, education, assigning the remaining cost to students and their families as tuition.
Recently, more and more states are crossing the 50-50 line: half of the cost being borne by the state, the other half by the student. States are rapidly becoming minority shareholders in the education of their citizens. The reasons for this trend are not hard to discern. In a period of slow revenue growth, states are facing rising costs in public K-12 education, medical care and corrections. Tuition at state colleges and universities is being treated as a “user fee” for those who benefit from the education and the degrees that mark their social attainment.
Although this shift in public higher education funding has been driven by fiscal pressures facing virtually every state in the union, there has been remarkably little discussion of the policy question: What is the appropriate balance of public and personal funding for a college education? In other words, to what extent is educating our citizenry providing a personal benefit, and to what extent is it providing for the general welfare of our society?
The most obvious way to assess the balance between private and public benefits of higher education is in terms of return on investment. Here, at least, we have some quantifiable information. We know, for example, that the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the average income for households headed by a college graduate in 2001 was $97,593. By comparison, the average income for households headed by a high school graduate without a college degree was $53,246. Over a working life of 30 years, this could amount to a return on investment that exceeds $1 million.
Similarly, however, we know from a study by the Milken Institute (2002) that “the single factor with the greatest power to explain differences in per capita income between states is the percentage of college graduates.” The report goes on to say that “on average, a one-year increase in a metro area’s educational level raises wages by 3-5%.” This translates into better jobs and more taxes paid to local governments. Based on this information, it should also be possible to calculate the relative economic benefit of a college education to the individual and to the state.
Economics, however, is only one dimension of the value of a college education. A second dimension might be called the capacity to make life choices. One of the most important outcomes of a college education is learning how to learn. That means college graduates not only are prepared for well-paying jobs, they also are prepared to change careers as the world changes around them. The capacity to adapt to a changing world is an important benefit to the individual college graduate, but it is also important for the well-being of our society.
Because our society undergoes change and growth through the play of market forces, we rely on individuals to adapt and prepare themselves for new opportunities that benefit us all. In other words, we all count on the existence of a pool of continuous learners to lead our social and economic development. Without large numbers of college educated people among us, our collective capacity to grow would be severely diminished. Our way of life depends on there being many individuals who are continuously learning and changing.
A third dimension of this balancing act is the value of higher education for democracy. A healthy democracy requires civic engagement in both participation and leadership within government and civic organizations. We know from many research studies that college educated people tend to participate in civic life to a greater extent than those who have not had the opportunity of a college degree. Civic activity and civic leadership are certainly satisfying to those who are involved. Individuals do benefit personally from having learned and developed the skills of participation as a part of their college educations. However, all of us benefit enormously from living in a society where skilled, knowledgeable, public-spirited individuals give their time and talent for the public good. This is a dimension where the public value of a college-educated populace may outweigh the personal value.
A fourth dimension of the equation is cultural. College educated individuals are exposed to a wide range and diversity of cultural and artistic experiences. As part of their educations, they cultivate cultural awareness and a desire for cultural and artistic opportunities. Regions with substantial numbers of college-educated individuals are typically rich in music, art, theatre, film, and other forms of personal enrichment and entertainment. A developed cultural appreciation is certainly a personal benefit of a college education, but the demand for these opportunities benefits an entire locality. I don’t know how the relative value of a rich cultural life for the individual and the locality is to be measured, but surely it must be taken into account when the cost of public higher education is being apportioned.
My hope is that these comments will point the way toward how we might have a public discussion about how the cost of public higher education should be balanced between the individual and the state. There are surely benefits to the individual and to the larger society that I have not mentioned, and they, too, should figure into the equation. What is important is that we make the decision thoughtfully, and that we recognize more explicitly than we have all the ways that education drives our progress toward a better life – personally and collectively.