Flipping the Script: Publicizing the Public Good that College Creates

By: KC Culver, University of Iowa

Should everyone go to college? This question has become something of an obsession for me. As a student of higher education, I know that college has a number of benefits. I also know it comes at a cost, including time and money. For potential students and their families, those costs are higher now than any time in the history of the U.S., thanks largely to federal and state policies and budgets. And yet, the public narrative says that these costs are worth it, because college graduates make more money. College, the argument suggests, provides social mobility.

When I consider this question as I fall asleep at night, or as I ride the bus to school, I always gravitate to my own personal experience. I went to college, and my cousin did not. After graduate school, I got a job as non-tenure-track faculty in an English department at a private institution. My cousin worked at Best Buy, installing car stereos and alarm systems. I’m pretty sure you can guess who made more money, but it may surprise you to learn that my cousin made twice as much money as I did every year. On top of that, he worked fewer hours each week (commenting on papers for a living is a time-consuming career choice).

If we rely on that public narrative about college as a means for a better, higher-paying job, then the simple answer to my question is a resounding no (and my cousin would agree). Many of the college memories that stand out the most were social experiences— as a first-year student, staying up all night to marathon Twin Peaks with acquaintances, some of whom are still my best friends today; living in an old house with five or six other people (and sharing a bathroom) after a childhood as an only child; and joining in storied college traditions like the May Day Naked Bike Ride. My cousin had similar social experiences, he got technical training on the job, and developed leadership skills to get promoted. He also hasn’t spent the last twenty years paying off student loans.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that college shaped me beyond these outcomes. One of my professors mentioned McMahon’s book about higher education and the public good. During the ASHE conference, I heard threads of McMahon’s argument in sessions and talks. But when I talk to my family and friends outside of higher education, they have no idea about these benefits. And even within our field, these benefits remain secondary. Perhaps this is because these benefits are more difficult to measure. Perhaps it is because these benefits hide behind economics jargon like “positive externalities” and “private non-market benefits.” Whatever the reason, if we believe in higher education as a public good, then we need to centralize these benefits in our conversations. It may be hyperbole to say we need to shout it from the rooftops, but we certainly need to say it loud enough for parents, for potential students, and for the politicians who fund public education.

As a natural extension of personal income, taxes and the workforce are an easy place to begin. The truth is that my cousin and I are anomalies; in general, people with a bachelor’s degree make more money than those with an associate’s degree, who in turn have higher incomes than those with only a high school diploma. Logically, then, because people with higher incomes pay more taxes, college degrees benefit the public because they increase the tax base. Similarly, college graduates have lower unemployment rates, meaning they more often contribute taxes and less often require public assistance. Going to college also increases work productivity. Interestingly, Enrico Moretti argues for a ripple effect in productivity, meaning that the increased productivity of college-educated workers creates spillover to non-college-educated workers. In addition to these outcomes that benefit everyone, college graduates have higher levels of job satisfaction.

To me, many of these outcomes are self-reinforcing, a symbiosis where the benefits to the individuals also benefit society more generally (as in the income/taxes example). For example, college-educated people more often engage in volunteering, voting, politics, and charitable giving. Similarly, research from the last decade suggests that college influences moral development. During his keynote address at the 2016 ASHE conference, Christopher Newfield added several examples of this symbiosis. For instance, he argued that cross-racial experiences in college are essential for the survival of democracy itself. In terms of climate change, he credited higher education for producing both research about the environment and developing in students the higher order thinking necessary to be able to understand the available information. He also credited public institutions for being spaces that protect dissention, academic freedom, free speech, and protest, all of which are public goods. I spent some time with him in conversation during Penn’s reception that evening, and he talked about using McMahon’s work as a source in his new book.

Several other notable outcomes from McMahon are worth mentioning. College-educated people are less likely to smoke cigarettes, more likely to exercise, and less likely to be obese. Greater overall health and greater levels of happiness lead graduates to live longer lives. Countries with greater participation in the postsecondary system have lower crime rates. College-educated people watch fewer hours of television, read more often, and are more likely to participate in cultural activities by attending plays and visiting art museums. And higher education leads to better parenting, better child health and lower infant mortality, and a greater chance that children will also go to college.

These benefits are, in part, a result of an orientation towards lifelong learning that college seems to nurture. College graduates are more likely to stay informed by, for instance, reading books on parenting that lead to better parenting practices. They also tend to be more future-oriented, making choices that delay instant gratification in favor of the long-term good. People who attend higher education also make wiser and more frequent use of support services like health care. Higher employment rates mean a greater likelihood of having health insurance that makes a yearly annual physical exam affordable. As a result, health problems can be diagnosed before becoming critical; college graduates use emergency rooms less often than those with a high school diploma or less. Finally, attending college appears to help individuals become more efficient. College-goers spend less time doing household chores, less money on groceries, and more efficiently manage household budgets.

Simply put, higher education teaches people how to make more intelligent choices. Lois Weis, in her keynote address, asked, “To what extent does thinking about higher education as a public good, even an impure one, change the structure of opportunities in higher education?” In other words, if community colleges serve people in their communities and bachelor’s degrees create benefits beyond bachelor’s degrees, why should states prevent community colleges from offering four-year degrees?

How do we, as scholars of higher education, flip the script on college as a personal investment for personal benefit? In his presidential address, Scott Thomas suggested, “The moral imperative has only carried us so far; it’s important to use the demographic and economic imperative to improve attainment.” When journalists and policymakers ask questions about individual income, we can shift that conversation to public economics. In 2002, Lochner and Moretti found that even a 1% increase in high school graduation rates among males would save the nation $1.4 billion in costs including prisons and court systems. A recently released report from the Department of Education suggests that state spending on prisons and jails has increased at three times the rate of spending on education. In fact, as this op-ed suggests, in 2014-2015 California spent about $9,200 on each K-12 student and more than $62,000 on each prison inmate.

When I learned the concept of “education as the balance wheel,” it was in the sense argued by Delaney and Doyle that education serves as the balancing force in state budgets, getting revenues in times of feast and deep cuts in times of fiscal famine. But the concept originally comes from Horace Mann (who, in addition to being an educational philosopher, was a lecturer at my alma mater, the University of Iowa); he suggested that education has the greatest chance of creating a more equitable society. As far as I can tell, the balance sheet is simple: increasingly spending on public education and reinvesting in public higher education will lead to lower costs for public welfare programs, prisons, and health care services.

Should everyone go to college? Maybe not at 18 years old; maybe not in our current landscape of what Newfield calls our privatized, market-driven public institutions. When I look at my cousin’s Facebook posts during the past few weeks, they are about cars (Volkswagons specifically), football, and his son. Don’t get me wrong; my cousin is a wonderful, loving human being. But his posts reveal the bubble he lives in, far away from the public good. I won’t compare his Facebook page to my own, because I live in the academic bubble of public good and my posts are skewed towards social justice issues. Instead, I’ll use his sister, who is a college graduate living in the same city as her brother. Like her brother, she posts about her son and football, and her posts about working out rival her brother’s car posts in number. But scattered among these are posts that demonstrate her social engagement. There are a few posts about support for the family of a high school friend whose house recently burned down. There’s a post supporting veterans, one about a trip to a local art studio, one about a piano composer who brings her to tears, and another about the beauty of Scotland. If we’re looking from an I-E-O perspective, she and her brother had very similar inputs. The subtle differences in their outcomes, then, answer my question with a resounding yes.

KC Culver is doctoral student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the University of Iowa. As a graduate researcher in the Center for Research on Undergraduate Students (CRUE), she focuses on postsecondary academic experiences, which she operationalizes through analysis of teaching and learning, institutional-level academic programs and policies, and faculty careers. She is also interested in how quantitative research measures and describes teaching and learning. You can learn more about CRUE and KC by visiting https://education.uiowa.edu/centers/crue.


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