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College Education: The Privatized Public Good

Catherine L. Williams
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Published on May 28, 2015

If human beings can be defined by anything it is our ingenuity, the ability to learn, to share knowledge, and to build upon what we already know.  In my opinion, it is our capacity to learn which is our greatest strength, and education – by extension – our greatest tool for achieving prosperity and excellence as a society.

Whether in a particular trade, in the arts or social sciences, or in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, education is what allows a population to advance, both by nurturing a more skilled and well-rounded labor force and, in democratic countries like the United States, creating a more engaged and informed electorate.  Considering all this, it really isn’t hard to see why many argue that higher education is a public good, and that collective investment in higher education is an obvious benefit to society as a whole.

Unfortunately, with the skyrocketing cost of college tuition in the United States and the ever increasing prevalence of student loan debt as an obstacle to attaining the traditional milestones of adulthood – marriage, having children, owning property – for many Millennials, it’s clear that we’ve come to view education not as a public good but as a private investment which individuals must make at their own peril.

It’s hard to see the logic in placing such a heavy burden – both a financial one and a social one – on the backs of young generations who still haven’t found their footing in the realm of adulthood.  Yes, the saying in economics that there is no such thing as a free lunch holds water here; as much as I would like it to be, there is no such thing as free college.  Every program that we endeavor to create inevitably takes resources, time, money, and labor, and investing fully in the education of new college students is no small goal at all.

It is also true that a college degree has become in present day what a high school diploma represented in the 1950’s, a readiness to be competitive in the U.S. job market as only an education can prepare you for.  The growing necessity to have at least some higher education on your resume has become a hot topic in political circles as the issue of crushing student loan debt begins to show its heavy impact on the other sectors of the economy – namely, the housing market, which Millennials still have yet to touch.

Many in the United States are still in dire straits after the economic downturn in 2008, despite the economic successes in more recent years in the private sector.  Many young adults – myself included – are living at home much longer into adulthood than our parallels in previous generations, and the prospect of getting a higher education has become an expensive endeavor that seems out of reach (without becoming heavily indebted) for all but the comfortably wealthy.

The U.S. culture places heavy emphasis on personal responsibility and individual initiative, both wonderful values to nurture.  However, when individual responsibility, initiative, and hard work are not enough to succeed, something needs to change.  It is a bit too much to place the burden of erecting a stable, prosperous future for the country and an innovative, profitable economy upon students even as we struggle through a lacking job market and unforgivable, cringe-worthy amounts of debt.  Public investment in free higher education has been suggested by politicians like President Obama, and free tuition (income-based) policies implemented in institutions like Stanford University.  So far though, we have yet to develop a comprehensive way to both the growing student indebtedness and the fact that despite spending more on education than any other country, our students’ performance clearly lags behind.

Still, when the benefits of an educated populace are so great for both the individual and the whole of society, I can’t help but think that a collective, public investment in our future leaders is worth rising to the challenge.

Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360

Catherine L. Williams

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