Should states provide funding for a college education for their citizens? The question was raised as I read through my news articles this morning. It seems more and more the answer is simply, “no,” students (and their parents) can pay. This rationale troubles me in several ways.
There is the argument that, while states and local municipalities do provide K-12 education for all citizens, not everyone will go to college and therefore states cannot provide a college education that is 100% paid for by the state. This would be unfair. A counter argument would be that educated citizens do benefit the state, and everyone within it. According to the 2001 census, the average income for households headed by a college graduate was $97,593, while for households headed by a high school graduate it was $53,246. States benefit in several ways from this, not the least from the increased tax revenues paid by wealthier citizens.
I’ve heard it said that college is not a right. Perhaps it should be. We’ve been providing student-citizens with a K-12 education for decades. The world has changed. A high school diploma once meant a person could go out and get a well-paying job in industry. Those days are gone. The skills needed both today and in the foreseeable future are more complex. Technical skills take longer to learn. One of the benefits of a college education is learning how to learn and how to solve problems in constructive ways. College graduates are able to adapt more easily to change and to adjust careers as necessary.
Today’s conservatives might argue that states paying for college education is simply more big government. If people want to pursue a college education, let them, but they should pay their own way. I worry the rising cost of college is pricing higher education out of reach of the middle class. Twenty yeas ago, states tended to subsidize nearly two-thirds of the cost of an education at a public university for in-state students. Today, that subsidy is often less that fifty percent. Education is the easiest way to close the gap between the poor and the middle class. Well-educated citizens become participating citizens and buy into our concept of a democratic society.
Finally, the argument is that states are in a budget squeeze, and one way to balance budgets is to reduce costs for education. This is short-sighted and only serves to harm states in the long run. K-12 and higher education have been hurt by politicians embrace of high-stakes testing at the expense of real education reform, including taking into account the affects of poverty in the educability of children. Begin to eliminate poverty and properly fund education at all levels and only them will we see the benefits of K-16 education on society.