Is the idea of higher education as a public good dead?

Lately I find myself increasingly frustrated. In particular, I’m frustrated by one strain of rhetoric that has increasingly crept into the public discourse. It is the idea that the acceptance of any social/government assistance is inherently a “hand out.” That somehow, our societal care for one another should only be expressed through private giving. That all individuals that accept public assistance are necessarily “leeches” on the system.  I find this incredibly disturbing and frustrating. Are we abandoning the idea that we are all in this together?  That by uplifting individuals we’re all uplifted in the process? What happened to the common weal?

civicknowledgeandHEThese debates over viewing services as public versus a private goods extends to something that’s very important to me: higher education.  Under the view of higher education as a public good, there are collective benefits to society that promote state subsidization and support for higher education. For example, in a democracy, a more educated citizenry leads to a more informed electorate and presumably better governance. Individuals who are more educated, make more informed health decisions, increasing the overall public heath and reducing health care costs (Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2013). The state therefore has a compelling interest to promote education.

exerciseandHEHowever, there are also many private benefits that individuals receive as a result of higher education. For example, individuals with post-secondary degrees are more likely to have higher incomes (Baum, et al., 2013). In this situation, it may be called into question why collective state money should be used to advance some individuals over others. Under this paradigm, the state should leave higher education funding to the individual who is to benefit from receiving this degree.

PublicHEexpendituresAs higher education has evolved in the United States, views towards higher education have begun to shift towards the view that it is a private good. As a result, many states are in the process of “defunding” higher education by eliminating direct subsidies to institutions, resulting in higher tuition costs (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010; Mumper, Gladieux, King, & Corrigan, 2011). In many cases, this reduction in direct subsidies is being replaced with aid directly to students, but need-based aid is not increasing at same rate as tuition increases (Mumper et. al., 2011). Additionally, many states are shifting away from need-based aid towards more merit-based aid (McGuniess, 2011; The College Board, 2011).

HEbyfamilyincomeThe consequences of these changes are acute, particularly for vulnerable student populations including minorities and those of lower socio-econmic status. These students are more likely to be sensitive to tuition increases. The inability of need-based aid to keep up with these tuition increases is only compounded by the shift towards merit-based aid. Because of the system of local funding for K-12 education in the United States, lower income students, and therefore a disproportionate number of minority students, are coming from less wealthy and likely disadvantaged communities and educational systems. Low income and minority students are therefore more likely to be shut out of opportunities for this merit-based aid.

HEenrollbyraceAnother consequence of the shift towards viewing education as a private good is that it places the burden of navigating the student aid process on the individual. This compounds the problem.  Because many students of low socio-economic status are the first generation in their families to attend college, they lack the guidance of parents who have navigated this process before, these students may not possess the same cultural capital and knowledge as their peers. Lacking this knowledge may cause students to quickly become confused by or give up on the process of attending college. Once in college, this process can continue presenting the student with a steep learning curve if they are to effectively navigate the university environment. These issues present barriers to access that must be overcome if a student is to succeed.

Knowing these realities, how can we, in good conscience, abandon the idea of higher education as a public good? The United Nations recognizes access to higher education for those qualified as a fundamental human right. Are we living up to this ideal? I don’t think we are and increasingly, I think we’re actively working against it. If we don’t take action to shift these trends now, the consequences for the future are dire.


* All charts in this post come from:
The College Board. (2011). Trends in student aid. Retrieved from:

Baum, S., Ma, J. & Payea, K. (2013). Education pays 2013: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. Retrieved from The College Board:

McGuiness, Jr., A. C.. (2011). The States and higher education. In Altbach, P. G., Gumport, P. J., & Berdahl, R. O. American higher education in the twenty-first century (3rd ed., pp.38-69). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mumper, M., Gladieux, L. E., King, J. E., & Corrigan, M. E. (2011). The Federal government in higher education. In Altbach, P. G., Gumport, P. J., & Berdahl, R. O. American higher education in the twenty-first century (3rd ed., pp.38-69). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). Digest of education statistics. Retrieved from

One thought on “Is the idea of higher education as a public good dead?

  1. This post reminds me of my intense interest in Curriculum Theorizing – particularly curriculum as political text. The idea of education as a public good is essentially dead, in my opinion. Neoliberal forces: a focus on the individual over the collective; a focus on fiscalization over resource reallocation; and most prominently and importantly in my mind, a focus on strict vocationalization over the importance of general education, have made this possible. The reason I say “essentially dead” is because what will kill higher education as a public good completely is the new College Scorecard system touted by the Obama administration. Once this erroneous policy is in place, the already competitive drive for financial resources will drive what is left of public higher education into overdrive, squeezing students, academic programs, and liberal learning out the door, all in the name of producing as quickly as possible the “human capital” for the corporations that will be the only funding source left for most institutions. K-12 is already in this boat thanks to NCLB/RTOP, and the College Scorecard is the same policy repackaged for Higher Education. Thanks for the post Paul – talking about this and getting people riled up is our last best hope!

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