Hardly a week goes by without a news article or story about whether or not attending college is financially worth it. The rising cost of college, combined with stagnant wages in so many fields, has made the factual answer to this question a muddier one in recent years. Nevertheless, “go to college” is still the standard American advice to our youth. But, could it be that decades of reinforcing the idea that college is a great personal “investment” has actually eroded support for public funding for higher education?
Recently, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report that examines trends in state funding for higher education since the recession and over the past year. The findings are striking. Not only are 48 states spending less per student, after adjusting for inflation, than before the recession but eight states have cut funding in the past year even as revenues were rising. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in spending cuts inside public higher ed systems as well as higher tuition.
The facts are clear, but the reason behind the trends is not. Research commissioned by Public Works may provide a clue. The greater the public perception of a personalized benefit to a public program – i.e. college is a good deal for individuals – the more likely people are to believe that the people benefitting most directly should foot the bill. Americans tend to default to using a consumer lens to view their own relationship with respect to government in general. This is a challenge overall, but particularly challenging for areas of government that have a blend of public and private funding as well as mix of perceived public and private benefits as is the case with higher education.
What can we do to rebalance the equation and to shift public attitudes back towards believing that public funding for college is good investment for all of us, not just the students? First, as we make the case to our youth and their families that college is a good deal we need to match that story with another public story – that it’s also a good shared investment as well. Second, we need to document and uplift the broader public benefits of higher education, such as strengthening local economies, creating vibrant communities, and undertaking research that improves all of our lives.