Make Higher Education a Public Good

A public good is a good that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. In this context “good” means a material object, product, or service; “non-rivalrous” means that my having or using the good does not preclude your having or using the good at the same time; and “non-excludable” means that no one can effectively be prevented from having or using the good.

National defense is an example of a public good. Healthcare is a private good (rivalrous and excludable); fish stocks are a common good (rivalrous but non-excludable); satellite television is a club good (non-rivalrous but excludable). All of the foregoing are definitional. Debating them is a waste of breath (or keystokes).

I’ve recently realized that a lot of what I’ve written about higher education over the years can be summed up in one sentence: make higher education a public good.

Right now the Congress is debating extending the present interest rate of 3.4% on student loans at the cost of about $6 billion. Currently, it’s slated to jump to 6.8% in July. Why not make it zero? Make higher education a public good.

We have the technology. We can make it stronger, faster. We can also make it non-rivalrous and non-excludable and a heckuva lot cheaper than what we’re paying now.

When I say this I don’t mean to make the current high educational system free. If I were I would be saying to subsidize at 100% the present private good higher educational system.

No, I mean make it non-rivalrous and non-excludable. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this can be done and there are several for-profit organizations that are providing higher education as a club good even as I type this. Take the next step.

Make higher education a public good.

34 comments… add one

  • PD Shaw

    How about making higher education at Harvard a public good?

  • So what are we talking about here? Eliminating admissions standards of any kind for Higher Education?

  • Jimbino

    No, wrong. First off, the proper term is “exclusive,” not excludable. They are as different as nauseous/nauseated, credulous/credible.

    If National Defense is a public good, we’re in trouble right off, until everybody is given the same right to drone attacks, waterboarding, extraordinary rendition and getting his junk felt-up. The problem is that the gummint includes National Offense, Drug Wars, VA health benefits, military spouse-benefits, to name a few annoying things, in National Defense. National Defense is no more than an excuse for gummint to secure puritanism, punish enemies and reward friends and determine life’s winners and losers.

    National Parks, the quintessential “public good” are also exclusive in fact. In our national parks and forests, you will see as many Black faces as you do Jews in a seminary. While there is no policy of exclusion in either, there is exclusion in fact. Much like the situation of Brown v. Board of Education. For that reason, they are not in fact public goods and the gummint has no right taxing the people to support either of them. And I don’t think our Blacks want to be bused from LA, Chicago and Atlanta to see Yosemite.

    Education is exclusive, as well, for many reasons. First of all, it favors the bright; if it didn’t, the bright wouldn’t put up with the classes. It favors the young just as jungle-jims do. And, especially when it comes to nursery-care and primary and secondary education, it favors the breeders. Offering everyone the option to breed so that he is not excluded from the “public good” is silly. Education supported by tax dollars represents wealth and income stolen from the child-free and passed on to the breeders, stolen from taxpayers to benefit kids who not only pay no taxes, but who give their parents a tax deduction!

  • How about making higher education at Harvard a public good?

    That’s an interesting subject. Considering the clubbiness of Harvard alums I’ve wondered for years why Harvard isn’t a “public accommodation” and, at the very least, required to make its admissions policies and deliberations public. For example, the best stats I’ve been able to come up with suggest that only 9% of Harvard freshmen are black. That sounds like systematic racial bias to me.

    From my point of view the issue is that the Powers-That-Be have routinely proclaimed more higher education as the primary economic policy of the U. S. for three administrations now. Not a Harvard education. Not even a bachelors degree. Just higher education. If they’re right, make it a public good.

    If, on the other hand, it’s a Harvard education that’s necessary for a decent job, I see no way that Harvard is not a public accommodation.

  • So what are we talking about here? Eliminating admissions standards of any kind for Higher Education?

    What I really mean is moving most of higher education online. I do believe that anybody who can do the work should be allowed to.

    I think there are three possibilities (and combinations) for the value of higher education: the knowledge, the degree itself, and signalling. I’m talking about the knowledge not the other two.

    If it’s just the degree, why not just issue degrees to everybody? I think that’s absurd on the face of it.

    If it’s signalling then a) there must be some cheaper way of doing it than what we’re doing and b) without universal accepted standards what the heck is being signalled? I think that signalling is a pretty likely candidate but, once you’ve discounted a handful of elite institutions, it’s simply nuts. Signal to noise is too high. What does getting an AA from Wilbur Wright College signify? That you don’t have enough money to go somewhere else? I don’t believe it signals anything whatever about knowledge, ability, work ethic, etc. at least not with reasonable confidence. Why is that signal a good thing?

  • Jimbino

    “I think there are three possibilities (and combinations) for the value of higher education: the knowledge, the degree itself, and signalling. I’m talking about the knowledge not the other two.”

    I think you’re missing the chief benefit of a Harvard Education: forming association with other White boys like yourself so that you can identify those whose asses you’ll be kissing in the future or who’ll be kissing yours. Either that or find White girl mate.

    I don’t think that much education goes on at Harvard. It represents more a system of elites in-elites out. I am proud to be even more elite than most of them: I’ve twice been accepted to Harvard grad schools and twice turned them down! That’s a much smaller club.

    And I do think that, in the interests of true education, everyone should be granted BA, MS, PhD and JD at birth, along with his compulsory circumcision, and I believe Milton Friedman would agree with me. Certification stands in the way of progress way more than it did in the day of Edison, Wright Brothers, Santos Dumont, Henry Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller, none of whom had a Harvard education. Thank Darwin that Gates, Dell, Jobs and Zuckerberg saw the light and dropped out of their Harvards or we’d be missing a lot of progress today.

  • Drew

    “How about making higher education at Harvard a public good?”

    Tsk. Tsk. Im sure you meant The University of Chicago. ;)

  • Jimbino

    Yes, I agree that higher education should be run by eBay. Anybody could offer to teach anything and anybody could buy whatever is offered, according to his tastes. Even classes in religion and alternative medicine would be offered.

    Most importantly, it should be financed like purchases on eBay: PayPal or Credit Card. No gummint support of White boys at the expense of Blacks and Hispanics.

    Of course, we would still suffer gummint constraints, as in selling of Nazi memorabilia. And there would be endless controversy over kids’ access to education. I can’t imagine unfettering the young Amerikan mind.

  • Ben Wolf

    @PD Shaw,

    The benefits of simply blowing up Harvard and our many other Ivy League institutions, and banning their graduates from holding any position higher than coffe boy would do so much more for the country than opening it up to a greater audience. Imagine if all those non-elite graduates currently held back because their diplomas don’t say “Harvard” were suddenly forced to step up their game and run the country.

    For a time you’d really see an environment where the best and brightest, rather than the most well-connected, rose to the top.

  • I think we’re getting derailed a bit with focusing on the elite institutions. From a cost standpoint they’re not the issue at all. We have fifty states and thousands of counties. Each of the states fund multiple institutions of higher learning. Many of the counties or cities within the counties fund community colleges. There are about 1,500 two-year colleges and 1,700 four-year colleges, many if not most publicly funded. The total spending is in the tens or hundreds of billions.

    That’s a lot of education. And real costs have skyrocketed. Unfortunately, most of the increase in spending over the last couple of decades hasn’t been in education or even in research. It’s been in administration. We need to find a better way.

    Right now Congress is wrangling about extending the subsidized interest rates for student loans. I think that’s grabbing hold of the wrong end of the stick. If higher education has become a necessity, why aren’t we doing it radically differently? Other than inertia and vested interests?

    We’re not asking basic questions. Why are college students being saddled with billions in debts? Why does it cost in the six figures to go to a state college? We’re just assuming that the ways things have been done are the only possibilities. I refuse to accept that assumption.

  • Jimbino

    We need to study the models of those institutions that actually manage to serve the needs of the poor and that continue to offer better products at lower prices.

    Walmart, eBay and Amazon come to mind, and of course there is no gummint organization that does any of those things. The post office, education, parks and forests and the VA are perfect examples. Now we have space flight.

    Naturally, the most important element in delivering the goods is privitization. That’s how we get our food, sex, recreational drugs and rock&roll, and all are pretty much available to every Amerikan, regardless of race or social class.

    I’d like to trust the gummint with nothing more than setting up standards for tupperware-type containers and lids.

  • Ben Wolf

    @Dave Schuler

    I think the answer regarding costs is because government effectively writes a blank check. It provides tremendous amounts of money for students to borrow without demanding that it get its money’s worth from the institutions. Loans are still a form of government subsidy: We are buying services from universities with public funds but not negotiating the costs.

  • Icepick

    getting his junk felt-up.

    You mean like the Secret Service?

  • Icepick
  • Icepick

    How about making higher education at Harvard a public good?

    MIT and Stanford (amongst others) have been making small moves in that direction.

  • Ben Wolf

    “Walmart, eBay and Amazon come to mind, and of course there is no gummint organization that does any of those things.”

    Except that they are dependent on government provided courts, laws, trade agreements, infrastructure, police, military, money and R&D. None of the organizations you list would exists without the existence of the United States Government, and the wealth they accumulate would not exist without state provided facilitational wealth.

    We’re certainly not going to make any headway here if we indulge in wildly inaccurate rhetorical flourishes.

  • Here’s an interesting graphic on increasing administrative size in University of California system.

    Exactly. I think it’s morally repugnant to force students to go into debt or to tax the residents of a state to pay the increasing salaries of the increasing numbers of administrators.

  • Except that they are dependent on government

    Not to mention that the development of the Internet itself was paid for out of the defense budget.

  • PD Shaw

    I think Harvard is a significant part of the problem though. I believe higher education is mostly a positional good, which means it operates differently than the other public goods mentioned. The basic emergency medical care guaranteed by the U.S. government probably does not vary significantly from place to place. The difference between Harvard and Central State Junior College is one in which the difference in degree is a difference in kind.

    Based on those assumption, I have two main problems. (1) Per the above link, positional goods are zero-sum games (only so many people can get into Harvard), and thus create an arms race in terms of people spending increasing time and money to get into such a school, only for the purpose of establishing relative worth. Economic waste to get into elite institutions; economic waste from institutions attempting to compete in this environment. (2) Social inequality. Expanding opportunity to higher education appears equitable at first glance, but if individual aptitudes vary greatly due to genes or family, such a “fair” process in which everybody has actually has a chance reinforces the negative attirubutes of a meritocarcy. Some people were born of gold and others of silver and bronze.

    Somewhat related is whether we have the ability to make this a public good without pandering to the privileged. Conor Friedersdorf makes a great point about Obama using his own life story to call for support for student loan subsidies. The Obamas had four Ivy League degrees to pay off between them, why the hell should tax payors help them?

    I think the government should subsidize, perhaps through more extensive R&D grants, the more productive elements of higher education, as well as more need-based scholarships. It should look at eliminating subsidies at Ivy League schools, and perhaps looking at some form of luxory taxes. I like the idea of taking some of the liberal arts learning on-line; update the Lyceum concept.

  • I don’t think they should be taxed out of existence, PD. I think they should be regulated out of existence. That there aren’t 200 black kids or 200 Hispanic kids per year in the entire United States that meet the standards to get into Harvard’s freshman class either doesn’t make the laugh test or should be causing us to re-think the entire merit thing.

  • PD Shaw

    It would be interesting to break that down by college or area of study. I would almost be willing to bet that Harvard Law School has racial/ethnic based admissions that reflect national demographics. College of engineering? Doubtful.

  • Jimbino

    Dave Schuler,

    Do you comprehend the fact that the telephone, phonograph, movie, dynamo, airplane, car, petroleum discovery and steel mills were almost entirely developed without gummint funding. How much did the gummint contribute to the internet? Very little. In most cases, as in delivery of mail, health care and education, it is a grand impediment.

    Furthermore, it would be nice if the Feds would return to maintaining infrastructure, a power granted in the Constitution, and stop meddling in R&D, education and health care, which power it is not granted there.

    There is no elitism problem that elimination of gummint funding and meddling wouldn’t solve. Talk about elitism: only Whites and Asians get into the national parks and forests, while Disney Worlds and Six Flags parks have lots of minorities in attendance. We need to sell off schools and parks to the likes of Walmart and Disney, if not Ted Turner, the only guy who seems to be able to raise buffalo on Western lands. I have no problem with Catholics admitting only Catholics into Notre Dame, or Harvard letting in only Blue Bloods, as long as the minorities are not subsidizing those White Country Clubs through their taxes.

  • Jimbino

    Dave Schuler,

    You claim: “For example, the best stats I’ve been able to come up with suggest that only 9% of Harvard freshmen are black. That sounds like systematic racial bias to me.”

    I just visited Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Sequoia, Death Valley, Zion, Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Saquaro, Organ-Pipe Cactus and numerous minor national and state parks and forests. Of 4000 visitors, I saw 4 Black Amerikans. That’s a 0.4% ratio. Does that sound like systematic racial bias to you?

  • Jimbino

    erratum: that’s a 0.1% ratio, while 12% of Amerikans are Black.

  • Icepick

    I don’t think they should be taxed out of existence, PD. I think they should be regulated out of existence. That there aren’t 200 black kids or 200 Hispanic kids per year in the entire United States that meet the standards to get into Harvard’s freshman class either doesn’t make the laugh test or should be causing us to re-think the entire merit thing.

    Merit also comes in the form of having parents who donate more money to the massive endowment that Harvard already enjoys. At a guess, whites probably account for a disproportionate share of endowment gifts for historical reasons. And money talks, so as soon as the MJs and Tigers of the world (as well as the Oprahs and Bob Johnsons and Magic Johnsons, to name three entrepreneurial types) start ponying up, they’ll get a bigger share of the legacies. You’ve got to discount the legacy types before considering proportions of students.

    Another factor that would matter would be distributions of talent. Ashkenazim and East Asians (and I would imagine a certain caste from south Asia) ‘skew right’ in talent distribution. They should account for a disproportionate share. Mexican Americans and African Americans ‘skew left’, so there will be fewer candidates, especially given that the Ashkenazim and Hans will be claiming a greater share. (European Americans don’t skew at all, taken as a whole, but should be losing share, minus legacies, due to pressure from the Han in particular.)

    Additionally, given national policy doctrine as well as the political/social leanings of the academy as a whole, those African American candidates will be heavily sought after. The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough to hit some magic number at Harvard; it’s that those students will also be heavily recruited by MIT, UofChicago, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Berkley, etc.

    And there’s also personal choice involved. When I was in high school there was a girl one or two classes ahead of me. (I believe one, but memory isn’t that sharp these days.) Tall, smart, hard-working, ambitious and black, she won a full ride to MIT. (Better than Harvard in my book.) She turned it down to go to some less prestigious school. (Less prestigious, but still quite good is what I remember, though I forget which one.) I didn’t know her well but when the word got out that she had turned them down, I sought her out and asked her about it. She said it was true. She already knew all the stories about MIT, decided that she had been used to being the biggest fish in the sea, and she didn’t think she would adapt well to being a small fish in a small pond. I thought that was a pretty shrewd move at the time, and still believe it today. (No, I have no idea how she turned out, but I would be shocked if she didn’t turn out doing well in life, minus the usual caprices of fate, of course.)

    Looking at a basic ratio just completely misses reality. (Which is why affirmative action sucks.)

  • Do you comprehend the fact that the telephone, phonograph, movie, dynamo, airplane, car, petroleum discovery and steel mills were almost entirely developed without gummint funding. How much did the gummint contribute to the internet? Very little.

    Do you comprehend that almost all of your examples are incorrect? Take the airplane, for example. The Wright Brothers received substantial funding from both the American and French governments from 1907 on. Early petroleum exploration was largely funded by the Union’s need for kerosene during the Civil War. That’s what built John D. Rockefeller’s billions.

    The defense budget provided nearly 100% of the funding of the Internet until 1989 when it was opened up to private individuals and companies. 100% of the protocols that comprise the Internet was funded by the government.

    In addition the development of the transistor, the integrated circuit, and the printed circuit board were enormously furthered by funding from the space program.

  • Icepick

    How much did the gummint contribute to the internet? Very little.

    That’s the second funniest thing I’ve read/heard today, after “Well, we do.”

  • Jimbino

    Except in Spain, the “rain falls on the just and the unjust.” Government largess, however, falls mainly on the elite and not the plain folk. Take UT Austin Law School, please. There you find lots of White Amerikans and few Black Amerikans, who pay equally to maintain it through state and federal tax subsidies and benefits.

    It amazes me that everything that Black folk like to do, like put food on the kid’s table, and use water, gasoline, gas and electricity, is so heavily taxed. Things that White folk like to do, like attend UT Law School, visit National Parks and Forests, and travel overseas, are not only not taxed, but are subsidized by Black Amerikans’ taxes.

  • Jimbino

    Dave Schuler,

    You should have cited Nuclear Reactors and Weapons, along with Space Exploration, as examples of what gummint might have done better. When it comes to all those other things you cite, either gummint had a need that was met by private industry (munitions, clothing, steel, petroleum, railroads) or way ahead of gummint R&D, like telegraph, telephone, movies, lightbulbs, airplanes, dirigibles, computers (Hollerith) and transistors (Bell Labs). I can’t believe you imagine that you could find an enterpeneur, whether Gates, Dell, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Edison, Bell, Wright Brothers, etc, who would consider the gummint anything but an impediment to progress.

  • PD Shaw

    A little remeniscing here . . .

    My grandfather took the G.I. Bill to business school at Northwestern University right after the war. The mass of students trippled the school’s enrollment. Quonset huts were erected to house the new students; faculty recruited. They certainly had to turn away enrollees, but the effort to expand as much as possible to accomodate the new demand is so different from today, when increased demand would be met by tightening standards. What if institutions of higher learning were required to make such efforts?

  • Sam

    I took engineering “economics” but that was mostly finance and accounting so I started watching the Berkely econ 101 lectures that are on YouTube. I think we’re already there for the education part, not quite there but very close for automated grading (degree part). The hardest part is also the silliest: signalling. No one could ask “where did you go to school?” so that they can one-up you.

  • michael reynolds

    I engage in reverse signaling. I make a point of telling people I’m a high school drop-out. It’s my way of saying, “That’s right, Harvard, I make more than you do, work fewer hours and enjoy almost total autonomy. And guess what? No college loans.” This leaves them contemplating two options, neither of which they like: either luck plays a bigger role than they want to admit, or I’m just smarter than they are.

  • Ben Wolf

    @Michael Reynolds

    +10

  • steve

    ” The basic emergency medical care guaranteed by the U.S. government probably does not vary significantly from place to place.”

    You have no idea. I assume you live in the city? The kind and quality of care varies widely at smaller, rural hospitals.

    Steve

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