Is College a Public Good?

The first big breakthrough in education was the widespread introduction of public education which gained momentum (in the US) during the first half of the 19th Century. Generally the aims were modest - the 3R's (reading, writing and arithmetic). Many church groups supplemented this with religious education which also incorporated some history and ethics.

This became one of the strengths of the US as an educated workforce became more entrepreneurial and creative than in the stratified social system of Europe. Even in the earliest days of America there was a need seen for a college education for the elite. This was meant to train "gentlemen" who would go into law, medicine and the clergy. The number of such institutions remained small and so did their enrollment. The length of study to get a degree also varied widely, two years was not uncommon.

As the industrial revolution progressed it became apparent that a grade school education was not sufficient for the new skills needed and the high school movement emerged. The age at which children could leave school also moved up and became 16 in many places. Even during the first half of the 20th Century a high school diploma was still a minority achievement and was all that was expected for most jobs.

Educators like John Dewey established new practices for education, replacing the primarily rote methods of the past with more hands-on and self directed approaches. He also changed the motivation for education from one of primarily supporting commerce to one designed to produce the thinking type of citizens needed in a self-governing democracy. The emphasis shifted from learning a core set of facts to learning how to learn, so that one could continue to amass new knowledge throughout one's life.

By the end of WWII it was becoming apparent that a high school education would not be sufficient for those entering the new technological age. The government made an explicit effort to ramp up access to college through the GI Bill and other programs. High school graduation, while not mandatory, was considered to be the norm, and those who failed to achieve this were (and are) at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives.

Thus, the importance of education was understood from the start and making it free through high school was deemed a public good, to be paid out of taxes. No one was to be denied an education because of the inability to pay. This contrasts with many poor countries, even today, where students have to pay school fees even in grade school.

The situation in college remained different. The land grant colleges were aimed primarily at agricultural trades and constituted the bulk of government supported higher education. Private schools grew in number, but still tended to think of themselves as training the elite for the professions. The lack of access for women (who also were rare in the professions) showed the mindset of these institutions. There was little value in education for those who were restricted from the professions.

The first free college in the US was City College of New York (as it was subsequently renamed) in 1847. It was aimed at the children immigrants who had no access to the traditional higher education opportunities, because of poverty and discrimination. It was a big success. It has managed to produce nine Nobel winners, all children who wouldn't have been able to attend if it had not been free. The movement spread and several other colleges within the system were created. The goals of a free education came to an end in the 1970's as the state started to demand students pay tuition. This was part of a general trend in the US away from public services which has continued in various forms since then.

The results have been as could be expected. All across the country poorer students are finding it difficult to attend college. A combination of federal grants, loans, work, and scholarships has tried to fill the gap. Another development has been the rise of community colleges which tend to be less expensive, but only provide a two year program. Such schools act as feeders to the four year colleges, but they do not provide the same experience that a true college or university offers because of the lack of research faculty and graduate schools.

Many professions no longer find even a college education adequate and students are now required to take advanced degrees. Even grade school teachers generally have to earn a master's degree in many areas. In the early 20th Century, school teachers went to "Normal" school for just one year to qualify for their profession. Medical school, law school and other specialized schools also require additional years of education and are quite expensive. It isn't unusual for a medical student to graduate owing $100,000 in deferred tuition expenses.

Several European countries have taken a different path. Extrapolating from the history of the high school movement they offer free higher education as well. The logic seems clear, if universal high school was a public good in the 19th and 20th Century, why shouldn't college be a public good in the 21st?

This lack of a coherent education philosophy in the US has produced undesirable effects. Those who come from the higher socio-economic strata generally get a world-class education and can afford to go to the more selective colleges. They still live in a world where the aim of a college education is to produce "gentlemen" who will enter the professions, although these day this tends to be finance, business and law rather than the favorites of the 20th Century.

The upper middle class also gets a fairly good education, but tend to go to state schools and less prestigious private schools. Those that do go to the highest ranked colleges do so with some considerable economic strain.

The rest of the population scuffles along. Some manage to get into college of community college, but opportunities are limited and require creative adaptations. Many young people don't go to college at all and a shockingly large number still fail to get even a high school diploma.

When the population is considered as a whole, the US ranks poorly compared to other developed countries in educational achievement. This has started to have a profound effect as innovation, research and entrepreneurship shift elsewhere.

There needs to be a reconsideration of the idea that a college education (and even some advanced degrees, as in medicine) is a public good and should be offered for free. The resentment that fosters the idea that programs that help selective sectors of society should not to be funded by taxes are mean-spirited, counter productive, and in opposition to the ideals of a democracy. Services are provided to those in need, one never knows when you may be the one who will require them. This "what's in it for me" attitude has gone too far. Communities are springing up which don't allow children, for example, so that they can avoid paying school taxes. Programs to help the poor are resented and underfunded and health care is seen as a personal expense, not a basic human right.

This way lies anarchy, not democracy.

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Copyright © 2009 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.