Few things drive me crazier than when people claim higher education is a public good, and then claim that, on that basis, it deserves either: a) more public funding, or b) needs to be funded exclusively on a public basis. This argument represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what the term “public good” actually means.
When most people hear the phrase “public good”, they’re probably thinking something like, “it’s good, it’s publicly funded; therefore, it’s a public good”. But that rationale is tautological. In fact, claims for public funding on the basis of a good being “public” rests on a much narrower definition. Here, I’d urge everyone to read Frances Wooley’s excellent summary of this issue entitled, “Why public goods are a pedagogical bad”. To qualify as a public good, the good has to be both non-rival (that is, one person using it does not diminish others’ ability to use it), and non-excludable (that is, once provided it is difficult to prevent people from using – e.g. lighthouses). The number of goods to which that might actually apply is very, very small, and higher education certainly isn’t one of them. Classroom space is very definitely rival, and it is trivially easy to exclude people from education – no money, no degree. Higher education is thus a private good. One with many public benefits, for sure, but private nonetheless.
Why does it matter if people call it a public good? Because in all your basic economic textbooks, public goods are the goods that all (or nearly all) think should be publicly funded. When people say something is a pubic good, they’re actually launching an (erroneous) appeal to economic authority as a basis for public funding.
Now, just because something isn’t a public good doesn’t mean there’s no case for a subsidy: it just means there’s no automatic case for it. Health care, welfare, and employment insurance are not public goods, but there’s still a very good case to be made for all of them in terms of a public insurance function – that is, it’s cheaper to collectively insure against ill health, job loss, and poverty than it is to make people do it themselves.
Sometimes there’s a case for government subvention due to obvious market failure – most student loans come under this category (markets have a hard time funding human capital), as does public funding of research (some types of research won’t be undertaken by the private sector because of the size of the externalities).
So it’s fine to say there is a public purpose to higher education. And it’s fine to say higher education has many public benefits. But saying higher education is a public good, and therefore deserves full public financing, is simply wrong. If we’re going to have sensible conversations about higher education financing, the least we can do is get the terminology right.