Op-ed: Higher Education’s Higher Returns

Public colleges and universities were never meant to be a form of charity.

The growth of public higher education during the 19th and 20th centuries was a strategic calculation about the public interest. Whether for training civic, religious and economic leaders 150 years ago, fostering military and agricultural innovations a century ago or building up the generation that would win the Cold War 50 years ago, states have invested in higher education in order to achieve practical goals. Practical goals for Ohio today are globally competitive, efficient and healthy citizens.

In economic terms, spending on our public colleges and universities has paid handsome dividends, and it is the best way to assure Ohio’s future as well. Other states have reduced their support of higher education more than Ohio has over the past 10 years, but last year our state still ranked 40th in the nation in per student state support. That is not good news for the state going forward.

Ohio’s budget is limited and responsible governance entails making difficult calls about serving many needs. Some forms of spending are easier to justify than others because they reduce future expenses or increase future revenues. Education is one form of investment that has consistently done both.

Investments in higher education reduce long-term costs to the state. College graduates are much less likely to commit crimes — an important consideration when Ohio now spends about 75 percent as much on prisons as it does on higher education.

Much more significantly, experts agree that sending more Ohioans to college would reduce health-care costs — the single largest category of state spending. On average, college graduates have much lower Medicaid costs related to obesity, smoking, heart disease and alcoholism.

Investing in higher education also increases revenues to the state. College graduates boost tax revenues by landing better-paying jobs — and attracting the employers who will hire them. According to this year’s U.S. Department of Labor data, college graduates are earning an average of 98 percent more per hour than high school graduates.

Businesses grow where the families have income that stretches beyond the bare necessities. Furthermore, a highly-educated labor pool is, in the long term, more likely to bring high-skill jobs to the state than tax incentives are, if only because competition between states to cut taxes on businesses will make it increasingly difficult to improve the terms that Ohio can offer.

Better health and better lifetime earnings are, of course, good for college graduates themselves, and it is entirely reasonable that they take on some of the costs of their higher education. But the proportion of the burden born by students has been increasing steadily at all 13 of the state’s four-year public universities for the past 20 years. Current tuition costs, even with substantial loans, are barely within reach or impossible to meet for many Ohio students or their families.

Neither individuals nor their communities can benefit from higher education if it is not economically accessible to them. For Ohio to meet the challenges of a 21st century economy, we have to find ways for many more Ohioans to enroll and succeed in college. And because more than three-quarters of Ohio’s graduates stay in the state after finishing college, it would be worth considering reducing out-of-state tuition costs so as to better position our universities to recruit the best and brightest students from around the country.

A higher education system that works is not cheap. Developing new modes of instruction that can reach students who have difficulty reaching four-year campuses while still responding effectively to student needs is expensive and time-consuming. Welcoming students from a wider variety of backgrounds, including those whose family members have not attended college, requires expanding the academic and community support services that institutions provide.

Budgets stretched thin over the past 20 years mean that many Ohio public colleges and universities face high bills to keep their buildings safe and functional as well as to retrofit them for 21st century technology. For long-term prosperity, Ohio needs a higher education mix that includes cutting-edge research institutions to create knowledge and provide graduate training as well as schools focused more heavily on excellent undergraduate teaching.

The governments in 39 other states understand this simple investment strategy better than Ohio’s has. One of the best investments individuals can make is in themselves. One of the best investments Ohio can make is in its citizens. Higher education is the single best place to do both.

Beth Quitslund is the Faculty Senate Chair at Ohio University and a member of the Ohio Faculty Council (which represents the faculty at all 13 of Ohio’s public universities).  Dan E. Krane chairs the Ohio Faculty Council and is a Fellow of the American Council on Education. Chet Cooper is the chair of Youngstown State University Academic Senate and vice chair of Ohio Faculty Council. Ken Learman is the secretary for the Ohio Faculty Council and a professor of physical therapy at YSU.