Investing in Education

The promise of a college education has long been entrance to the middle class. What we’re learning however, in a painful and indelicate manner, is that not everyone can be middle class.

By making a college education more and more affordable, what we’ve done instead is make the competition to enter this hallowed group of middle managers more competitive, more vicious, and overall not everything we were promised.

We Pay for Infrastructure through Taxes

Atlas Shrugged
Can we refuse to carry our own weight in our culture? That’s the tragedy of the commons.

It’s always been true that we want to use the infrastructure (sometimes inaccurately described as “services”), but we really don’t want to pay for them. In economics, this is known as the free rider problem. When everyone uses a common resource but no one wants to maintain it, that’s called the tragedy of the commons.

To a certain extent, this tragedy always happens. It is one of the inefficiencies of any semi-capitalist system.

The problem is exacerbated in education because it is only partially treated as infrastructure. Because it is of economic value to users, as individuals, everyone wants to take advantage of it, but no one wants to pay for it. Even more so, no one wants to pay for its general use — just their own.

Funding Education

The larger question, then, is “to what extent should we make education part of the infrastructure (and therefore fund it)?” Insofar as it is designed to benefit the individual, individuals can pay for it. But as far as it is a necessary part of our culture, we need to come together and pay for it.

We already do pay for education through taxes up to the high school level. And while we do not pay for education past that level, we do subsidize it. These subsidies take the form a student loans and other tax breaks both for educational institutions and those paying them.

So there is a recognition on some level that this is, effectively, a “capital” investment in our future. In other words, we don’t think that education is a commodity. It is a necessity. Educated people are good for our country, good for our culture.

But there has been a trend, probably at least since the 1980s and maybe much earlier, to move education away from the model of the not-for-profit, and toward a business model. That’s one reason that administrators are so very well compensated for their hard work.

Education As a Capital Investment

Somehow, an idea has grown up that we get educated for our own sakes. It’s some Ayn-Randian, individualistic idea that we invest in our selves in order to make more money later. While there have always been schools like that, they’ve traditionally been trade schools.

The mission of not-for-profit education never was to turn out workers capable of functioning in a rapidly changing world. That is, certainly, one of their goals. It is their short-term “value added.”

But education, as the pursuit of knowledge, is more than just a way to train workers for this generation. Lost in the economic model of the corporation, we can best think of it as basic research and development on a cultural level. There is value in every liberal arts major, no matter how much the media snickers.

The Great Recession

One of the big effects of the recent economic downturn, the Great Recession, has been a trend away from education for its own sake. That is a movement away from the tradition of education for the middle class.

A core middle class value for a hundred years or longer has been education for its own sake. The middle class, as the middle managers and specialists of society, have held up the Western ideal that knowledge is power — that, in fact, all knowledge is power.

The price of college first went up in line with its market value. It has continued to rise as it moved from being a crowning achievement to a necessary prerequisite — the ante just to get in the game.

With the cost of a now-necessary college education spiraling upward, people are reasonably concerned with their individual, short-term return on investment. And few are looking at the long-term, cultural costs of this move.


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