College Education- Who Benefits?

I continue to be disappointed by the quality of questions the national media is asking around the issue of education. Latest case in point?  The cover of Newsweek’s September 10 edition, which blares, Is College a Lousy Investment?   Such a question assumes that the purpose of a college education is simply to provide an income.  A college education is reduced to being a very personal choice (in that it is a choice that affects only the potential attendee of college) and a very utilitarian, economic choice.  College serves to financially benefit the student.  That is all.  It simply becomes vocational training on steroids.

If we look a little bit deeper into the purpose of an education, we find that we end up with a different question in regards to college financing.

For the sake of my argument, let’s assume two things about a college education’s purpose.

1.  A quality education allows one to come closer to living what has historically been called the Good Life.  That is, through learning, we acquire access to a quality of life that would otherwise be difficult to attain.  We are exposed to critical thinking, books, ideas, people that we wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.  We learn, as Chris Hedges points out, how to think.  Such an education leads to an expansion of the self that is impossible to monetize.  (See this for a list of the qualities of character that result from a liberal education.)

2.  Our democracy is dependent upon a citizenship that is able to think critically, that is able to see through propaganda, mass conformity, consumerist proclivities and the inertia towards fascism.  Therefore, higher education is crucial in fostering a citizenship capable of carrying on a truly democratic society.  (For more, see Want a Stronger Democracy? Invest In Education)

I believe these two assumptions are fairly traditional.  There is nothing radical or confusing about them.

If these two assumptions are factored into the equation, the question about college education becomes very different.  If education provides both a personal benefit that is immeasurable, and is necessary for democracy then,

Why isn’t a college education more affordable for all?


From a factual perspective, I quote William Trombley,

“State spending for public colleges and universities dropped sharply last year, as the state-by-state numbers contained in this special report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education demonstrate. At the same time, tuition and required fee charges rose significantly in many states, and some states reduced their student financial aid programs.”

The cost of education is increasing at least partially because state funding of colleges is shrinking.  One one level, this is understandable.  As our economy has stumbled, our tax revenues have decreased leaving less to spend.

On another level, it isn’t understandable at all.  As Naomi Wolf addresses in her Shock Doctrine theory, this fiscal crises has been created at least partially through massive tax cuts.  (Here is a nice summary of Wolf’s ideas.  If you’re short on time, skip to about the 4 minute mark.)  Cuts in taxes lead to reduced revenues, which lead to the need to cut spending, which lead to reduced revenues…you get the picture.  “Disaster capitalism” creates a crises that becomes the basis for the acceptance of the right wing agenda.  The reduction of investment in our funding of colleges is just as much about our priorities as it is about anything else.  The degree to which we allow this manufactured crises determine our priorities is the same degree to which our democracy is at risk.

Who benefits from the increasing obstacles to a higher education?  Those who can most afford an education.  The function of this reduction of education to an economic value only, then, is to maintain the status quo while continuing to leverage economic and political power for the rich.  The whole idea of class mobility, a foundation of a functioning democracy, is put into question when access to education is limited.

If we continue to think of education as only a personal economic benefit, we will continue to ask, is college a good investment?

If we look at the bigger picture and recognize that an education is necessary both personally and for all of us as a democratic community dependent upon the public good, the question changes.  Again, why isn’t college education more affordable for all?

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