“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” recently showcased three University of Texas at Austin students learning that Samsung would pay the remainder of their college tuition costs. A few days later, another college student sunk a half-court basket to win a scholarship. These jubilant moments reminded me of billionaire Robert Smith’s pledge to pay the college debt for each of Morehouse University’s 2019 graduates.
We should applaud philanthropists and companies that support students. But we should not get comfortable with a normal that has students wishing and hoping for chance encounters with the wealthy so their college dreams can become reality — for all of our benefit.
Many of higher education’s greatest policy achievements, such as the GI Bill and the Pell Grant program, come from an understanding that a student’s postsecondary education is an investment that ultimately benefits the entire community: lower crime, better health, civic engagement and artistic and philanthropic involvement. These values contribute to our collective identity. And we contribute to the resources that help us all. Much as we all benefit from parks, libraries and roads, higher education is a common good that improves society. There are also individual returns to higher education. A college degree increases a person’s individual lifetime earnings by $1 million over a high school diploma.
But during the past few decades, the share of public college costs has shifted from states to students and families. In 2018, 45 of 50 states spent less per student than they did before the 2008 recession (adjusting for inflation). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states are paying 16% less than they did a decade ago — while public college costs have increased 31%. The gap is being filled by students and their families — and many struggle.
Some argue that universities are money pits. Blame is assigned to new stadiums, climbing walls and fancy gyms and to administrators and faculty members who vacuum up financial resources. The reality is more complex: Many of these amenities are paid for through fees by the users of these facilities. World-class faculties, labs and classrooms are expensive, yet are needed to prepare students for 21st-century workplaces — and the regulations and services required have necessitated the growth of specialists to manage these resources. Even if a university were to institute austerity measures, they would see an exodus of faculty members and students, and compliance problems with federal and state regulations.
This phenomenon is called “cost disease” — things such as automation that drive down costs in other fields don’t impact higher education in the same way. Although I have access to computers, it still takes time to read and grade my students’ papers.
So what’s the solution? First, and probably most controversially, our public higher education system needs greater public investment. Our libraries, archives, laboratories and faculties require significant resources. It would be tragic if we surrendered public higher education wholly to corporations and wealthy individuals.
Second, more of us need to have a better understanding regarding how funding higher education works. Economist Gordon Winston’s essay, “Why Can’t a College Be More Like a Firm?” may have put it best when he explained college financing is “part church and part car dealer,” which is why business principles don’t work as they do in the Fortune 500.
Finally, we must recognize the catastrophic costs of an education system out of reach for students, particularly those in the lowest economic strata. The signature low-income access Pell Grant, which covered 75% of college costs in 1975, covers only 30% of college costs today. There also needs to be greater investment in programs that facilitate access to college for low-income students and families to help close the gap.
Individual acts of benevolence are great and needed, but it also exposes our declining investment in public higher education. We need to reconsider our shared responsibility to the “great equalizer” and reprioritize funding higher education, publicly, so students don’t have to hope that a billionaire or Fortune 500 company singles them out for the lottery.