Higher Education as a Public Good

My graduation from Miami University, May 2009

Dean Karen DePauw, Dean for Graduate Education at VT and one of the program facilitators for this trip, asked us to think about what I’m calling the theme of this trip: Higher Education as a Public Good.

First a distinction between public and private goods. Public goods benefit a community in some way, whereas private goods only benefit the user of the good. Pretty simple.

According to Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post, colleges (both 2- and 4-year) used to be seen as public good. She writes:

From the days of Benjamin Franklin, through the foundation of land-grant colleges during the Civil War, and then up until quite recently, higher education (just like primary or secondary education) was seen as a sort of public good: a service whose benefits were shared among the entire population and whose costs should therefore be borne by the entire population.

But lately, there’s been a shift, as Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American College and Universities, notes in the Washington Post.

The narrow focus on earning power, coinciding with demographic shifts in the number and diversity of college students, has fueled the understanding of college as a purely private benefit rather than a good for all.

Because of this, state governments justify reducing or removing financial aid to students, making college seem more like a luxury than a necessity. Community colleges with their 2-year trade school programs, and a new focus on helping students earn 2 years of gen ed credits which they’ll then transfer to a 4-year college, are helping to make college affordable and useful for all, but sometimes that’s still not enough.

Society benefits when people go to college. Individuals earn higher wages which are then put into the community economy. College graduates tend to be better informed, more active citizens. New everyday products are created because of the contributions of college graduates.

Beyond the community benefits from college graduates, I also think it’s important to note what I think the graduates themselves should be getting out of college: learning a new way to think.

In the US, I see 4-year college being used as an extension of high school, and as such, I think the colleges have a responsibility to help the young adults who attend mature, learn to make wise decisions, and critically engage with ideas they do not want to, or have not yet, confronted. In my own estimation, college should be just as much about learning math theorems and engineering equations as it should be about meeting people with different belief systems and critically engaging in ideas and perspectives they hadn’t considered before.

As a grad student with a background in the humanities and social sciences, it’s easy to look at me and say “well of course you think ‘thinking differently’ matters! But what’s wrong with getting a business or political science degree and making money?”

There’s noting wrong with any of that, but back to the discussion of higher ed as a public good, people earning those business and poli sci degrees will still have to use their knowledge in ways that can either help or harm the communities in which they choose to live after graduation.

I’m reminded of a male student in the very first Women’ and Gender Studies course I ever taught, who was sort of half dragged by his girlfriend to enroll alongside her. He wanted to go into politics after graduation and run for elected office. At the end of the semester, he wrote me a reflective essay on his visit to the local Planned Parenthood clinic (as 1 of his 2 chosen “outside the classroom” activities). He wrote that although he wasn’t sure what PP did before he visited, but was now going to make sure that PP had funding and offices were available in any of the districts he governed.

This is, to me, an ultimate “higher ed as a public good” moment. Because of what a student learned in class, the community, in this case low income women and men, will benefit. Because of college, this young man learned to think differently and will be able to impact his community upon graduation.

As a public good, college remains affordable because the public values what it will gain from those who attend and agrees to subsidize the cost of attendance through taxes and directing a part of the public budget to financial aid. If we start treating college as a private business and a private good, lots of people will lose out, unable to afford the cost.

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