College Is a Bad Investment

Richard Vedder
Forbes Magazine
June 20, 2005

Pouring more taxpayer money into universities doesn't lead to prosperity.

When university presidents plead for government money, they often make an argument for social investment. Pump funds into higher education and the economy will grow, they claim. After all, this is an information- and skill-based age in which college graduates are far more productive than their less-educated peers.

True. But the evidence suggests that increased public funding for universities doesn't lead to greater prosperity-and may even reduce the chances of it. Compare the growth in real per capita income in states that spend a lot on higher education with that of states that spend less and a few surprises show up. Over the past 50 years low-support New Hampshire outdistanced neighboring Vermont on nearly any economic measure, though Vermont spent more than twice as much of its population's personal income on higher education (2.37% versus 1.15% in New Hampshire). Missouri, with modest state university appropriations (1.32% of personal income), grew faster than its neighbor to the north, Iowa (at 2.41%).

Similar examples abound. Using data for all 50 states from 1977 and 2002, I compared the 10 states with the highest state funding for universities against the 10 states with the lowest. The result: The low-spending states had far better growth in real income per capita, a median growth of 46% compared with 32% for the states with the highest university spending. In 2000 the median per capita income level for the low-spending states was $32,777, 27% higher than the median for the 10 states where higher education got the most state money.

The results were the same when controlling for a state's oilfields or other energy sources, the age distribution of its population, the prevalence of labor unions, the tax climate and other factors that could affect growth-even the proportion of college graduates. This despite the fact that the states that were growing most quickly tended to have a high proportion of college graduates.

How could this be? Colleges have devoted relatively little new funding over the past generation to the core mission of instruction (spending only 21 cents of each new inflation-adjusted dollar per student on it), preferring instead to assist research, hire more nonacademic staff, give generous pay increases, support athletics and build luxurious facilities. And while in the private sector companies have learned to get more work out of fewer employees, the opposite appears to have happened in higher education. In 1976 American education employed three nonfaculty professional workers (administrators, counselors, librarians, computer experts) for every 100 students; by 2001 that number had doubled.

Another piece of the puzzle: Only the weakest of positive correlations links funding level and enrollment. Even if students enroll, they don't necessarily finish school. Nearly 40% fail to graduate within five or even six years, suggesting that many who attend universities don't much benefit from them.

Yet another explanation is one Forbes readers know all too well. Taxes reduce private-sector activity. People who must pay high taxes tend to work and invest less and also tend to migrate to lower-tax areas. In other words, increasing funding to universities means transferring resources from the relatively productive private sector to higher education, which tends to be less productive and efficient.

So what should we do? College is still a decent individual investment, certifying that the graduate meets minimum standards (often missing in high school) for competence, intelligence, maturity and literacy. But we should rethink the nature and magnitude of public support for universities. State governments, facing rising Medicaid bills and demands for primary and secondary education funding, are already slashing their support. I hope and expect this trend to continue. Big changes are coming to higher education. They are overdue.

Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University and author of Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much (AEI Press)