Education Doesn't Cost It Pays


February 03, 1993|By ALLAN SHIELDS

San Diego. -- The rising cost of college tuition reflects the denigration of the value of the student to society.

The cost of higher education in public universities was never expected to be borne by student fees or tuition. Payment for instruction cannot cover even the cost of teaching, let alone the larger costs of university operations.

When the total costs of higher education increase, is it reasonable to transfer the burden of the increase to student tuition in place of state subsidies by taxation to all citizens? The assumption of many at the federal and state levels is that it is reasonable, and the fact of decades of rising tuition rates is clear evidence of this belief.

The basic assumption that feeds this movement is: As the principal beneficiary of his education, the student should be expected to assume the financial responsibility. Sometimes the matter is hedged by saying ''some of the responsibility,'' but the actual implication should be obvious: Make up budget short-falls by assessing those who benefit directly and who have money. If they don't have money, then offer them long-term loans payable beginning after graduation.

The proposal of national service put forward by President Clinton is also a loan. It requires national service at a time when the new graduate is most eager to enter the job market.

The inchoate argument, not easily formed, runs approximately this way: Students are no longer so worthy of further tax subsidies. The costs of education have overreached the ability of taxes to meet them. Therefore, since the student is the true beneficiary of the education, let him carry more of the cost burden. Increase tuition. He can pay for it after graduation, because his earning power will be much greater than that of the nongraduate -- 160 percent more by one estimate. Because his earning power is greater, he can afford to pay for his tuition: Buy now, pay later -- a familiar mantra in our culture.

The central argument cannot succeed because it is not true that the student is the sole principal beneficiary of his education.

The assumption of virtually all major institutions of higher learning in the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries, until recent decades, was this: An educated citizen, especially a professionally educated one, is a prime benefit to the state, nation, the world. His cultural, intellectual, creative and financial contributions over his entire lifetime repay manifold dividends beyond the brief four-year expense of his formal education subsidized by the commonwealth as a whole, by the community of citizens.

In short, it was perceived that education pays; it doesn't cost. Education was seen as an investment which has benefits no one can accurately calculate.

Why has this longstanding attitude toward the value of the student changed so dramatically in recent decades? Why is the student now devalued?

Numerous interrelated factors have contributed: The sheer, massive explosion of university enrollments; reduced standards for admission and retention; reduced standards of student preparation for university-level work; in the 1960s, the widespread student misbehavior and some faculty unprofessionalism; the admission of students clearly unsuited and unprepared to benefit from advanced instruction; reduced support from alumni and private donors; the politicization of university courses, with the resultant political backlash, such as raised tuition, and reductions in budget support for new buildings, faculty positions, and libraries; defaults on payments of student loans after graduation; the general non-intellectualism and anti-intellectualism of the national administrations in Washington; the economic bifurcation of the U.S. society, where the middle and lower segments find little value in supporting taxes for the education of the well-to-do in the universities.

How soon we forget the lessons of even recent history. Who now vividly recalls the GI Bill of Rights following World War II and the enormous support that bill gave to thousands of returning veterans, veterans who became unquestioned benefits to the commonwealth as professionals -- engineers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, professors, writers, creative artists -- all as a direct result of that federal support for tuition, books and supplies in universities all across the country. Veterans whose lifelong taxes -- state and federal -- have repaid the costs of their education several times over.

It must be added that the universities themselves were direct beneficiaries of the same bill. Think also of the Fulbright program and its overseas fellowships. Think of the local support freely given veterans by schools: fellowships, scholarships, grants-in-aid and more.

Clearly, a sea change has occurred in attitudes toward the value of students and institutions of higher learning. Students in public institutions are now viewed as tax liabilities, not as an investment by the community expecting to reap future rewards or returns. The education of young people should yet be viewed as an investment and not as a tax burden.

The benefits of education are not alone for the student but for the entire society. Though it is clear that there are unnumbered advantages for each graduate, the advantages for society as a whole are great. The returns on the state investment are far in excess of the cost to educate each student.

Allan Shields, professor emeritus of philosophy at San Diego State University, wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.

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