Is Higher Education a Public Good?

February 4, 2011

As state legislatures around the country start cutting budgets, they face a puzzler -- what is the proper subsidy (if any) for higher education?  The answer to this question may hinge on another: whether higher education can be considered a "public good."  Perhaps higher education, as currently provided, is indeed a public good -- but a bad one, says Jane S. Shaw, president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education.

Many say that because education is partly a public good your education deserves public support.  The reason is that public goods are not just "things that are good for the public," as the name may suggest.  There is an argument that education will be undersupplied.  The extra public benefits of education (such as contributing to a well-run community) aren't something that most people are willing to pay for (because the buyers don't benefit directly).  Thus education will be undersupplied and the government must step in.  But here is the issue, says Shaw.

  • In a democracy, citizens own the government -- they both provide public goods and use them, so it's up to the citizens to make sure that the goods are properly provided.
  • It is not exactly news that special interests influence the government provision of goods and services.
  • Education, like other public services, is rife with special interests and political payoffs.
  • Indeed, the education that college graduates receive is sometimes so one-sided that it may reduce graduates' contributions to a well-run community rather than increase them.
  • Higher education looks a lot like a bad public good.

Source: Jane S. Shaw, "Is College a Bad Public Good?" Pope Center for Higher Education, February 1, 2010.

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