The last several years have been a historic time in Wisconsin politics. We’ve seen protests at the capitol, several recall elections, and extreme political and ideological polarization. Our state mirrors what is happening around the country, and this fall’s federal elections are proving to be some of the most contested races in recent history.
Although much of the debate has focused on the economy and the need to accelerate our recovery, there has also been some, but minimal, discussion about higher education and its importance in our country’s future.
Most politicians appear to agree that higher education is important to our future economy. However, in some races, candidates appear to have fundamental differences on whether they believe higher education is a public good or an individual/private good.
The “private good” notion is one that sees higher education as a private responsibility. Since the individual benefits by earning a degree and enhancing his or her earning power, one might argue that the costs of higher education should be the burden of the individual or his/her family. Extreme holders of this view have even argued that federal and state governments should not be in the business of paying for higher education. This view of higher education also is consistent with supporting the growth of for-profit higher education institutions.
Although college clearly does benefit individuals, it is hard to ignore the greater benefits to society. The “public good” concept argues that increasing higher education attainment levels results in an overall stronger society. National and global data clearly demonstrate that there is a strong correlation between societies with high college attainment levels and per capita earning power, better health, greater participation in government, and the prevalence of the arts and humanities. Advocates for viewing higher education as a public good argue for maximum access to higher education by growing federal student financial aid and grant programs.
Public good proponents argue that our country has benefited greatly from federal laws and programs that have provided access to college. Examples include the Morrill Act of 1862 that created our public Land Grant Colleges and Universities and connected university research and expertise to the public, the GI Bill that allowed veterans to attend college after World War II, and the Pell Grant program that has provided federal assistance to students in need. The combination of these efforts helped to develop a public higher education system in the United States (including Wisconsin) that is the envy of the world. The public good view also recognizes the importance of supporting publicly funded research at our universities and colleges.
Our country’s future is heavily dependent upon our investment in education, including higher education. We need to increase access to college, increase public-supported research and funding for our universities, and enhance the connections between our public universities and our citizenry. These investments will not only transform individuals, they will also enhance our communities and national economy. Although higher education has not received the attention it deserves in this election season, I urge voters to consider how their candidates view public higher education.