It has been interesting to follow the shifting tides in the debate over whether higher education is a public good for society or a private gain for an individual.
The answer seems obvious – it's both. As a society, our quality of life and economic health benefit from an educated citizenry. As individuals, those with college degrees earn more, have greater opportunities, are healthier and happier, and contribute to civic life at far greater rates than those without degrees.
Yet the debate today reflects changing attitudes toward the value of college. For the first century and a half or so of our country's existence, it was strictly a private gain, mostly for those who could afford higher education. We don't want to return to an era when only the privileged have access to higher education. The steady rise of public universities beginning in the 19th century and proceeding through the 20th opened access. And by the middle part of the last century, the notion of a private gain changed dramatically with the GI Bill, which cemented higher education's place as a public good as well as a private gain.
Our society was transformed by the tens of thousands of men and women who served our country in World War II and Korea, then returned to pursue higher education. Our nation became stronger, our society more upwardly mobile, our economy more robust.
In succeeding generations, states recognized the substantial return on investment into higher education and significantly subsidized the cost of education. States often paid two-thirds with students paying the balance. But dramatic cuts to higher education have flipped that equation, with students in Colorado now paying more than two-thirds of the cost of their education. That shift has led to increasing questions about who benefits from higher education.
Yet the real question seems to be about the cost, not the value. Specifically, who should pay? Roughly one-third of the population earns a college degree, leaving a sizable chunk questioning why their tax dollars subsidize something that will not directly benefit them. They also contend that the good that comes from education is strictly an advantage to an individual.
In Colorado, you could make a good case that this argument has prevailed. CU receives less than 6 percent of its $3.1 billion budget from state support. The burden of paying for a college education increasingly falls to students and families. But that trend is not necessarily an acknowledgment that higher education is not a public good; in Colorado it's more a function of recession-battered state funding and constitutional knots that leave higher education vulnerable to budget cuts. Elected officials understand our value and support us. In the recently concluded legislative session, Colorado higher education institutions received a $100 million boost, $60 million in operating funds (about $17 million to CU) and $40 million in financial aid. It begins to address the more than 30 percent cut we sustained to state funding in the past six years. While we expect another increase next year, projections show more cuts in our future.
I would argue strongly that higher education is a public good, and a critical one at that, as well as an individual benefit. There are many examples of activities that taxes fund that individuals don't benefit directly from but society does. National defense is perhaps the most obvious, but there are hundreds more. As an individual, I won't personally benefit from research on ovarian cancer or from early childhood education programs, but society certainly will, and I will as part of that society.
Further, those who don't take part in higher education gain significantly from those who do. College graduates earn more and thus pay more taxes. The state's return on investment is substantial. Additionally, whether you went to college or not, you benefit from those who do. We all need doctors, lawyers, nurses, engineers, teachers and other professions that require higher education.
There is also the issue of access. Education is a great equalizer, and public funding (particularly through grants and scholarships) makes it possible for those who might lack the financial wherewithal to get a college degree and improve their lot. We all win in that scenario.
Naysayers also contend that higher education is wasteful and bureaucratic, and that not all those who pursue a degree finish, all of which consumes public money. Concern over bureaucratic waste is legitimate and we are addressing that. We have been doing so at CU the past six years: cutting costs, streamlining administration and instituting efficiencies and better business practices. Our administrative overhead is 43 percent below our national peer averages. We passed legislation over several legislative sessions that allows us to operate more efficiently, saving millions, as well as to increase revenues in areas such as enrolling more international students. Many of our faculty teach and advise more than they are required for a small stipend. To the point that not all who start will finish, my business career taught me that not every investment pays off. But that's no reason to stop investing.
Speaking of investments, society gains significantly from the investment in research that happens at universities such as ours, particularly in the sciences and health care. It improves and saves lives, fosters innovation, creates companies and jobs, and furthers discovery and drives the economy.
The benefits we all derive from having an educated society far outweigh the costs to individuals, whether they earned a college degree or not. Advancing the greater good is one of the ideals on which our nation was founded, and it is one that is frequently exemplified by investments in higher education.
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