The old social democratic belief that America should have the best universal free public education system in the world was a principal source of America’s relative prosperity and economic leadership for a century. Now that the political coalition that supported that belief is gone, America will be a much less exceptional place.
I am quite frequently a pessimist, but this is one area where I don’t think we should give in so easily. The US had a strong comparative advantage for post-secondary education due to several factors:
- the First Amendment, critical to the atmosphere of free inquiry in which scholarship and studying thrive;
- liberal immigration laws that brought the world’s talent to teach and learn;
- decentralized control of education, which created intellectual and prestige-oriented competition between campuses and states;
- a public-private mix, which further contributed to variety — and provided an outlet for religious-themed education while reducing attempts to impose religious orthodoxy on the majority of campuses;
- a national consensus that higher education matters,
- as a matter of national security (post-Sputnik)
- as part of the social contract with veterans (the GI Bill)
- as one of the primary means of personal advancement in the post-Horatio Alger world
and that higher education was thus worth paying for as a public good rather than billing for it as a private good.
None of these factors other than the last part of the last one were in any way ‘social democratic’. And most are still in place. The two that are hurting are fixable.
An easy fix would be the immigration prong. Post-9/11 we’ve tightened the rules for academics and even more for students in ways that not only do damage to recruiting but make the experience of coming the US unpleasant. This in turn has greatly
straightened strengthened foreign academic competitors — it’s only a small exaggeration to say that our mistreatment of foreign students is the core of the UK’s academic financing strategy.
As for the US financing, it seems to me that the national security arguments are as strong as they ever were even without the Cold War — stronger if one considers the economic consequences of education for the workforce and for national wealth. Similarly, education remains a key aspect of income outcomes. If we are pricing poor people out of college, or saddling them with huge debt, we’re locking in inequality across generations. I think there are signs that the social consensus is moving ponderously towards confronting inequality. Raising the minimum wage will be round one; education expenses could be round two.
Because he chooses to cast the issue as ‘social democratic’ (bad framing?) Brad sees an equality problem with lowering tuition in the public post-secondary sector:
Given that the average taxpayer of California is considerably poorer than the average Berkeley graduate, that upward transfer to the relatively rich leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
The second argument is that for every student who would go to current Berkeley, the taxpayers of California would have to pony up $48,000 that they would not be able to spend on what they want.
Given that the average taxpayer of California is considerably poorer than the average Berkeley graduate, that upward transfer to the relatively rich leaves a really really bad taste in the mouth.
In my view, these arguments against are overwhelming: there is no valid argument for transforming UC Berkeley as it currently exists into Free Berkeley.
Even on this field, I am not persuaded that these are overwhelming arguments. Part of what the taxpayers of California want is to live in an opportunity society, not one with fixed (and perhaps angry) social classes. Another part of what the taxpayers of California want, or at least ought to want, is to live in a society that benefits from the public good of having educated voters making decisions. A third part of what the taxpayers of California want is to live in a country that is economically competitive on the world stage — which in our case increasingly means services and knowledge workers. Plus, although this more Brad’s department than mine, there is surely a multiplier from education that increases everyone’s wealth; my instinct is that this compares well to the opportunity cost of the sort of job available to a high school graduate.
This is a brew of self-interest from which a turn against expensive public education back towards free or low-priced public colleges ought to be possible. Another part of the story will undoubtedly be cost control, with fewer fancy food courts and trophy gyms. But if we can bend the cost curve on health care, we can do it on education.
(Note that the argument above is, if anything, against interest – I work in a private institution that can only be hurt if the price of public education goes down. On the other hand, I think the arguments above apply primarily to undergraduate education, and least well to professional schools; then again, in a university everyone to some extent shares the same pot.)