The Arizona Desert Lamp

Shelton channels Adam Smith

Posted in Campus, Education Policy by Evan Lisull on 25 August 2009

Somewhere, a distant universe explodes:

What we’ve seen over the years is a shift significantly from public support for education to the students and the families supporting education. And there’s an argument for that. It’s a private good, you’re going to earn more money, you’re going to have horizons lifted and you’re going to live a better life if you get that college education, so you should have to pay for it.

Lest you think that the Rothbardian counterrevolution has planted its roots in Baja Arizona, he immediately follows that up with:

But of course there’s a societal benefit too, right? When you go to school, in cold hard cash you’re paying more taxes into society but you’re also less likely to go to prison, you’re less likely to be a drain on society, you’re going to live a healthier life, you’re going to influence your neighborhood, raise your kids and all these things are societal benefits.

President Shelton makes an entirely honest argument, and not surprisingly it is the weakest possible argument for public funding of state universities. Essentially, university education is a private gain that increases the probability of public benefits for society. This sounds awfully familiar:

But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.

So why is land-grant college education different from any other sort of education? With respect to societal gain, a gainfully employed IT technician from the entire private Phoenix University will provide the same societal benefits as a self-employed baker who dropped out of college as a UA graduate selling insurance policies.

In this way, one can argue that the state should encourage education funding, subsidizing the cost of the program to keep tuition down, provide aid for increased access, etc. What is not clear is why subsidizing graduate-emphasizing, research-based institutions is the best way to do this. No matter how much Stimulis the Big Three gorge, they will still be more expensive than their CC brethren. Meanwhile, community colleges continue to receive a dearth of funds from the state, in both total and per-capita senses, when compared to the research universities.

The problem for the state, however, is that it’s very hard to show off with community colleges. The show Community is just a manifestation of a long-held dislike and disdain for community colleges, contrasted with the glory of solar arrays on garages and U.S. News and World Report rankings. Ideally, the state would shift funding away from research universities and toward community colleges. Good luck getting anyone in this game to sign on to that.

Yet at least Shelton is willing to toy with the notion that tertiary education is not a purely public good:

The fundamental question this country has to deal with is, “Do we have the right balance between public support for education and the private support coming from the students and their families themselves?” It should be an interesting discussion that’ll take place in this state and nationally over the next few years

It is, indeed, a very interesting question – a question made more interesting by the fact that no one within the system has been asking it for years. On a primary and secondary level, many have argued that no, the balance has shifted too far to public support – they have been rewarded with scorn from teachers’ unions. On a tertiary level, university officials have been too busy jostling for stimulus funds like dancers following Pac-Man Jones to take time to consider what exactly it is that they’re doing.

President  Shelton is almost certainly right to say that funds need to be secured in the short-run to maintain solvency – much as a junkie needs cash now, man, because I’m totally gonna kick this thing, but I need $20 to get me through the week, but after this I’m gonna change. Just don’t be surprised when the budget battles of 2015 roll around.

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