Skip to main content

Is It Fair for Education to Be Cheap

Brad DeLong, professor of economics | March 17, 2010

There is a great tension at the heart of American public higher education. On the one hand, the people who benefit from public and publicly-funded higher education are primarily people who are or will be relatively rich–they will, after all, have a college education, and we know now that people with four-year B.A.s have incomes more than 70% higher than those who finished their education with high school. Publicly-funded higher education is thus, on average, a transfer of wealth from taxpayers in general to the upper-middle class of America today.

On the other hand, the fact that education is as expensive as it is appears to be keeping a great many people from acquiring more. This current cohort of white, male, native-born twenty-year holds will–for the first time in American history–have no more education than their predecessors of a generation ago. This is extraordinary, given that this is a generation during which the college salary premium has risen from 30% to 70%. The returns to college are much greater than they were a decade ago? So why aren’t more people attending.

The answer is that lots of people fear college because it is expensive: they would have to go into debt to attend, and they fear to do so.

So our dilemma: if we don’t keep college cheap–and publicly-funded–we find it next to impossible to increase educational opportunity; if we subsidize college with public money, we are transferring from the not-so-rich to the relatively rich.