Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Is Higher Education a Private or Public Good?

Is it not contradictory to say that primary and secondary education are integral to the maintenance of an advanced developed society, but then do an about-face and argue that access to higher education is not? Is it not odd to believe that K-12 education is a public good, but that higher education is a private one? In economics, a private good is an item that yields positive benefits to the one that acquires it, benefits that then can be excluded from others. Conversely, a public good is an item that others cannot be excluded from, whereby access to one does not reduce its availability to others.

In 1987, William J. Bennett, the Secretary of Education at the time, argued that, “because a college graduate can expect to earn $640,000 more over his lifetime than a high school graduate...[he] suggested shifting from the taxpayers to the beneficiaries the burden of paying for Federal student-loan programs.” Following such logic, the proposed federal budget of 1988 sought to eliminate campus-based aid programs such as supplemental equal-opportunity grants and work-study, while cutting Guaranteed Student Loan and Pell Grant programs.[1] Increasingly the average American citizen would be socialized to think of higher education as a private commodity.

Yet, if we look at the expansion of access to higher education historically, these policy initiatives were based on the belief that a more highly educated population was a public good. This was particularly true with the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, more popularly known as the G.I. Bill. In 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt first petitioned Congress to pass legislation providing World War II veterans with a variety of benefits, it was believed that most were not interested in the components guaranteeing assistance to attend colleges and universities.[2] The opposite proved to be true. By the end of the bill's provisions in 1956, over 7.8 million veterans had participated in an education or training program,[3] accounting for nearly 49 percent of college students at its height, fundamentally revolutionizing postwar America.

Prior to the G.I. Bill, higher education was exclusively an elite endeavor. Despite a substantial portion of the country's youth having the will and ability for college, many did not have the financial resources to attend.[4] The G.I. Bill was not only central to the technological advancement and long-term economic growth experienced following the war,[5] but also the transformation of the U.S. from a "steeply hierarchical society divided by wealth and class to one in which citizens aspired to and achieved middle class status."[6] Most importantly, broad access to higher education convinced many Americans that they were "first class citizens, worthy of the government's interest and investment,"[7] that "government was for and about people like them."[8] They would come to be part of America’s most civically engaged generation, making the G.I Bill the "greatest experiment in democratic education the world has ever seen."[9] Is it not time that we began to see higher education as the public investment it is, rather than the private commodity it has become?

[1] Priscilla Van Tassel, "Hollander Hopeful on Student Aid," New York Times, January 25, 1987.
[2] Keith W. Olson, "The G.I. Bill and Higher Education: Success and Surprise," American Quarterly 25, no. 5 (1973): 597.
[3] "Education and Training," U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, accessed July 4, 2015,
[4] Olson, "The G.I. Bill and Higher Education," 607.
[5] Ibid., 610.
[6] Melissa Murray, "When War is Work: The G.I. Bill, Citizenship, and the Civic Generation," California Law Review 96, no. 4 (2008): 974.
[7] Ibid., 968.
[8] Ibid., 976-77.
[9] Olson, "The G.I. Bill and Higher Education," 606.

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