This crossed my Twitter stream today, thanks to Mark Guzdial:
What could fund free public higher education for the next 58 years? pic.twitter.com/kaJ6mLUCmC— Jeffrey Levin (@jilevin) January 2, 2014
The original article has posted an important correction — the funds spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (not just Iraq) would fund public higher education for 52 years (not 58). The numbers are weakened a bit, but don’t really undermine the point.
But let’s consider for a moment the math behind this conclusion. Their sources are the Economic Cost Summary from The Costs of War, putting the war cost at $3.1tn, and the State Higher Education Finance Report from the State Higher Education Officers’ Association reporting net tuition income of $59.9bn in 2012 across all public higher education institutions. $59.9bn times 52 is just about $3.1tn.
There is a powerful argument to be made here, comparing the costs of war with the costs of education. The money we spent on post-9/11 wars would pay the full 2012 tuition for every student at a public institution of higher education. 52 times. We would do well to think carefully about our national priorities. It is not unreasonable to consider education as an opportunity cost for war.
However, that is not quite the argument that the article’s authors made, and this frustrates me:
We can resuscitate our public university system and restore opportunity to millions, it’s simply a matter of priorities. For the money spent so far on the ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we could provide completely free public higher education at every single two- and four-year school in the country — for the next 52 years.
Analyzing the actual cost of a long-term program of free public higher education is a lot more complicated than multiplying 2012 net tuition revenues by N years. I expect that making public education free will increase the number of students who pursue it, both among those who would skip college and those who would go to a private school. This will increase the number of students who need to be covered (subject to capacity constraints); it will also affect the per-student costs, as more students need more facilities but may also allow some costs to be more spread out across the student body. Understanding what it would cost to provide free public higher education for 52 years requires careful analysis qualified with clear and justified assumptions. There is a rhetorical use for the quick estimate of $59.9bn × 52, but not in such an unqualified and exaggerated fashion (they link to the articles, but do not include a discussion or reference to a discussion of how they derived the numbers; I only know they multipled $59.9bn by 52 because they said so in the correction).
I think it is good to think critically about what we, as a society and a nation, spend money on. Part of that involves thinking about what else we could do with that money. I also want higher education to be more accessible to more people, an effort that will likely require significant public funds. I don’t like seeing egregiously bad estimates used to argue for it. Sloppy analysis directly misleads, it undermines good points that it is attempting to serve, and it can’t be good for public receptiveness to careful analysis and data-driven policy.