The possibility that the tuition cap on University of Wisconsin System schools could increase is causing much anxiety among students. Fearing that if left to itself UW would increase tuition, student organizations have been lobbying for the cap to stay.
There are many arguments people use to oppose letting tuition increase or state financial support for public education decrease. For example, many people insist public education is a right, or point out letting education get more expensive will make life more unpleasant for students now and in the future. Whatever reasoning people want to use, any insistence that the state should not let public education be more expensive for students is self-interested.
The first reason is this insistence betrays a reluctance to have students pay a greater proportion of the cost of the education they’re benefiting from. I’ve heard many times that raising the tuition cap would increase the cost of education. It is common for people to mistake price with cost and this pervades how people see the state’s public education policy. The tuition and segregated fees students pay is the price of education. It is different than the cost of education, which may include any other input required to run the institution. Whatever members of the faculty could be doing instead of working at UW is a cost, too. Price and cost can differ. It is often in a publicly-funded program that the price is lower than the cost. To insist students should not pay more for studying at the university is tantamount to assuming the cost away, disregarding what other uses there may be for faculty and university facilities.
A more important reason why this insistence is self-interested is the nature of the resource being contested: public money. Citizens pay taxes to a state in expectation that what they pay will go to an array of socially beneficial programs, not just public education. Because tax revenue is a scarce resource, spending more on one public program necessarily means spending less on other public programs. Thus, the insistence on maintaining the tuition cap and public spending on education is the same as asking the public to provide more in this direction and less in others. If the tuition cap is kept at its current level, the cost is not only the higher public spending on education, but also the decrease in other public programs such as running state parks. When people talk about the cost of increasing tuition, they always refer to the burden of student loan debt, but never to shortened state park visiting hours. Any effort to maintain or increase public spending on public education is for the benefit of students and at the expense of the rest of society.
However, one may object that this resistance to paying more for public education is not self-interested because public education is a social good — the presence of educated people makes everyone else more productive. This may be true, but the extent to which education is a social good is limited. When it comes to public higher education, there are two segments of society that benefit from it differently. Students get the benefit of public education funding in the present and in the future as they can use an institution’s services and facilities immediately, and they can use the knowledge they gain for the rest of their careers. The rest of society, however, can get the benefit of public education only when a student graduates and makes a meaningful contribution. Some people may not live long enough to receive the benefit of their tax money being diverted to education. In this light, public education spending benefits the younger generation disproportionately, so it is not unambiguously a public good.
This is not to say, however, that it is wrong for students’ rights groups to influence the legislative process in their favor. This is just to say it is not perfectly noble. I don’t expect a students’ rights group to internalize the perspective of society as a whole any more than industrial representatives lobbying for restricted foreign competition would.
Heikal Badrulhisham ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in economics.