The Right to Education

Mr. Wentz is working toward a master’s degree in public policy analysis.

I am a graduate student at an expensive Ivy League university. The federal government’s guaranteed student loan program already has financed $5,000 of my educational costs, and substantial additional debt looms on my horizon. My father, an honest, hard-working bookkeeper, earns substantially less than does my mother, a public schoolteacher. Certainly I, if anyone, should join the ranks of those who, in their own self-interest, have marched on Washington to protest cuts in aid to students.

Why, then, have I hesitated? Why have I, as one who stands to lose a substantial government subsidy, chosen to remain aloof and above the flay?

The answers to such questions are many and varied. In part my action (or inaction) reflects a long developed disgust at abuse of existing programs. Certainly, too, my stance reflects the belief that, in an age when both food stamps and entitlements are facing the ax, no program, least of all government aid to graduate students, should remain untouched.

Significantly, however., my thoughts turn also to a more fundamental question—one concerning the very concept of government in a free society. I am prompted to wonder whether I, as my colleagues argue, somehow enjoy an intrinsic “right” to education. Does the American government “owe” me, in some principled sense, unrestricted access to graduate loan assistance? Is it true that, as Norman Cousins noted: “It is no longer correct to regard higher education solely as a privilege. It is a basic right in today’s world”?

My conscience thinks not, and despite the adverse effect on my pocketbook, therein lies my hesitation. For unlike national defense, police protection, and other aspects of life in society, education is not and never has been a purely “public” good. Though governments out of obligation and necessity may provide for defense and security, governments do not, therefore, owe me or anyone else funds for the pursuit of a master’s or law degree.

A Cousins-type argument for intervention in the provision of educational services runs as follows. Governments, if viewed as distinct agents, may be defined in terms of their functions. An economist views Washington, then, as a factory for the production of “public” goods—those services (such as national defense, post offices, flood control, and so forth) provided for all citizens.

The Problem of “Free Riders”

Regulations, taxes, and other methods of economic intervention are levied by governments in response to situations in which universally desired goods are not produced by free operations of markets. Police officers and road fixtures, for example, are necessary everyday goods, but private systems may not provide them in amounts considered “optimal” by many citizens.

Governments, it is argued, and not markets, then, ought properly to oversee the provision of public goods. Many services are nonexclusive in nature; once they are provided, it is difficult to prevent individuals from deriving benefits. An adequate defense establishment protects everyone in the country whether they like it or not. Markets in this instance are not efficient, and are thought to face peculiar allocational difficulties, most notably the so-called “free-rider” problem. Since market systems cannot compel payment for a collective good, there is no way to prevent a person from receiving the services of the good if he or she refuses to pay for it. Organizations which provide benefits to, and confer obligations on, their members (such as governments, labor unions, and the like), then resort to coercive methods for providing public goods. Workers in unionized plants, for example, may attempt both to enjoy the benefits of unionization, and to avoid union membership and the subsequent payment of dues. To counter such temptations, many organizers insist on “closed” or “union” shops. Similarly, governments (as opposed to markets) are uniquely suited to eliminate free riders by mandating taxation for the provision of public goods.

The concept of government so defined, it is easy to see how Cousins and others view education as a right, and not a privilege. Education, they argue, is a public good; there are many ways in which all of society gains from the widest possible spread of education. Education may lead to universally recognized technical advances; the economic payoff to society of investments in human capital is great. Further, education may make democracy work “better,” both by preparing an intelligent elector ate, and by creating citizens better trained and better able to cope with pressing social problems. Taken together, such benefits are non-exclusive; individuals can not be prevented from realizing the returns of overall educational improvements. A government ought, then, in a normative sense, to provide for the education of its citizens, in the same manner to which a government “ought” to provide for a national defense, or for any other public good.

Personal Benefits

What this argument fails to recognize, however, is that unlike the rewards of national defense and public safety programs, many benefits of educational subsidies are private, and not public in nature. Educated individuals earn higher incomes. They also may value their stay at a university because of cultural or social reasons, or indeed because it delays the necessity of deciding what to do next. None of these benefits reflects significant externalities-citizens directly secure college degrees for themselves. Indeed, since individuals can be excluded from gaining these benefits (those who fail to pay tuition, fail to matriculate), the procurement of an educational service does not differ in a fundamental way from the purchase of any other private good.

And is not the provision of private goods precisely the domain of the free market?

It seems that education, correctly understood, is neither purely a public nor a private good, but a mixture of both. One is left to debate, then, the extent to which this is true. If it were argued, for example, that elementary schools have important collective aspects, then the government, as a provider of public goods, might opt for subsidization. Alternately, however, if the benefits of advanced degrees are especially private, provisions for higher education might be left to the free operation of the market.

Unfortunately in practice it is difficult to draw such fine distinctions (particularly in light, for example, of recent success in the operation of private high schools), and so determining the correct amount of government support for education is a troublesome political issue. But this, of course, is precisely the point! For even if it is true that governments primarily are providers of public goods, since education in fact entails many elements which are private in nature, it does not follow that citizens therefore enjoy a “right,” in some absolute sense, to student aid. Rather, the extent of educational assistance is a matter of great controversy, and is an argument in which there exist no foregone conclusions.

The Members of the House Education and Labor Committee may argue, for example, that it is inadvisable to approve additional cuts in student aid programs, particularly those focused on assisting low and middle income college students. These very same members, however, might in fact conclude that evidence of waste and fraud in the graduate student loan program warrants its elimination. Significantly, whether either position is to be adopted is a political decision, and not one which turns on some quasi-legal question of whether anyone’s “right” to education has been violated.

Graduate students such as myself do not, as some suggest, enjoy a “right” to education. The proper extent of government aid to students is a political question, and a point about which reasonable men can, and fortunately do, disagree.

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