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.

Look Ma…A Passport!

The Secretary of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.

US Passport

So this is nifty, my passport came in the mail today, less than a month after I put in my application!

I remember being 16, taking my driving exam, and earning my license. As soon as I got home, I fired up my mom’s old blue Nissan minivan and drove it to the local park and back – probably only a 5 mile round trip – but I still remember the freedom. No one was in the van with me and if I wanted to stop for ice cream or a soda I could. After being bound to home for 15 years, going only as far as I could walk or bike or catch a car ride, my world suddenly expanded.

In some ways, it feels like my world is expanding again. Before I got my passport I could only go as far as this countries borders would allow me, now I can buy a plane ticket and go most anywhere!

$450 buys me a flight to London and back in April!

Try my luck in Dublin, Ireland for $850!

$870 lets me experience an archeology dig in Cairo!

I can go hang  with the Kiwi birds in New Zealand for $1700!

I have a feeling I’ve been bitten by the travel bug!!


Hello World!

It seems odd to start this blog post with the default headline from WordPress, but in some ways it’s entirely appropriate.

Literally: Hello World!

I’ve never been outside the US, the tippy-top of Mexico (when I was 9 or so) and the very bottom of Canada (just across the North Dakota border while stationed in Minot, ND, with the Air Force), so in some very literal ways this trip is exactly that: Hello World!

Just 2 weeks ago, I applied for my first passport ever – a pretty uneventful occasion save for the number of documents I had to dig up to prove I am who I say I am. Sidenote: ordering a passport is a good way to find out you have 5 copies of your birth certificate (why?!?!?) and that sometimes you can manage to keep up with important legal documents you never thought you would need again.

Now I wait.

There’s a lot of excitement, but also a lot of trepidation surrounding this trip. I’m a planner, so I’m grateful that much of the trip is already scheduled and I have the freedom to be in charge of my own schedule of flights, train rides and hotels before and after the “official” schedule begins on May 21.

The current plan is to fly from DC to London on May 17, then train it to Paris then on to Zurich May 18-20. I’ve still got to find places to stay and decide on what to see (all of it!!!) before May 21. I’ve got a travel buddy who’s also new to this whole international thing, and I’m grateful I won’t be alone.

There’s a lot to do between now and when I leave, but my biggest fear is that I’m not going to want to come back. My hope is that I am bitten by the travel bug and can find a way to use my passport for more than just this trip.

So yeah, that’s it. Literally: Hello World!