Higher education today is at the center of significant political debate regarding how much tax money from the state should be allocated to support public colleges and universities.
On one hand, there is an argument that society in general and the overall economy benefit from public tax investment in higher education. This stance claims society is better off, safer, more productive, and able to more solid political decisions supporting democracy when the citizenry is well-educated. Therefore, it is in the public good for tax dollars to support people attending and graduating from college. Public subsidy provides opportunities for more people to attend college and gives the opportunity for people, particularly the economically disadvantaged, to become teachers, accountants, doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, scientists and other jobs needed in the economy for the overall good of society. People advocating higher education as a public good believe the use of tax dollars, even an extensive investment, is justified and, in fact, the responsibility of state government.
On the other hand, there is a perspective claiming individuals benefit from a college education because it provides them with credentials for particular careers and salaries, sometimes very large salaries. For example, if a student majors in biology, gains admission to medical school, and eventually becomes a surgeon, they could reap tremendous material reward from this career allowing them to buy a large house, drive a new car, and have various other benefits. Since that individual directly benefits from their education, shouldn't they be required to make a significant personal investment in their education and why would there be an expectation that this investment is the responsibility of taxpayers?
The debate over higher education as a public good versus a personal benefit occurs in the halls of state legislatures across the country and the results, political and ideological in nature, can lead to increases or decreases in state support for colleges and universities as well as changes in student tuition and fees. When I was a freshman in college, tuition was $375 for the semester (the entire semester, not just a single course) and the state supported around 85% of the university's costs. Today, tuition at Southeast is around $206 per credit hour, about 38% of the cost to operate the university comes from state revenues, and student costs account for the remaining 62%. It could be argued over the past thirty or forty years the United States has seen a political and ideological shift from viewing higher education from a public good to more of a personal or individual benefit. Obviously, the outcome of this debate directly effects people, both taxpayers as well as students.
Higher education as a public good or personal benefit? As citizens, voters, and participants in our democracy, you should understand this question and advocate for your stance.