Is It Fair for Education to Be Cheap, by Brad DeLong: 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.
I think the answer is to place more of the funding burden on those who do well because of their education than we do now rather than restricting access, i.e. increased progressivity of the tax code (and no, I don't think this will take away or diminish the incentive to get rich). Education is not just about learning things that will help you make a lot of money, though that is certainly a desirable outcome, a well-rounded liberal arts education has benefits that go far beyond training for an occupation. That, in conjunction with the economic benefits of education to the individual and to society, points to more rather than less access.