Education and the National Debt

I get it. The United States, like much of the rest of the world, is peering into an abyss of debt that threatens our quality of life, our security, and our potential for future growth. I am the father of two children and very much want them to inherit a country more prosperous, safe, and economically just than the one we currently inhabit.

I am also no economist, which may or may not be a bad thing in discussions of these matters. Even a quick scan of the economic literature reveals no consensus among economists about the relations among debt, investments, and growth, though it is a pretty sure bet that economists writing for the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institute, and the Congressional Budget Office are likely to come to different conclusions. As to forecasting the future? I am a big fan of John Kenneth Galbraith's observation that "the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable."

Still, history, evidence, and common sense all suggest pretty strongly that higher, better, and more widespread levels of educational attainment are virtually certain to enhance the quality of both economic and civic life. Is there an example to the contrary, that is, an example of a society that has bettered its condition by lowering the level of educational attainment of its population? If there is one, my studies to date have missed it.

Yet as we grapple with the current debt burden at the state and national level, we seem determined to slash investments in the one area, education, that has the greatest potential to drive economic growth and social well-being over the medium and long term. States in particular seem to be competing in a sort of perverse Race to the Bottom: we'll see your sharp cuts to K-12 education and raise you draconian cuts to post-secondary education.

Again, I get it. We have a major debt problem and we can't live beyond our means. But we have seen in recent years, in both the public and private sectors, the woeful results of short-term thinking, and we should be capable even in moments of stress of distinguishing between decisions that clearly do not foster economic growth and those that do, such as investment in the education of our children. Fear and anger do not as a rule inspire our best thinking, and they are driving at this time far too much of our public discourse and far too many of our policy decisions.

Arthur Rolnick is the former senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis -- hardly a hotbed of radical thought. He has for years made the case, based on careful study, that the Return on Investment for expenditures on early childhood education is extraordinarily high: according to his research, 16 percent annually, inflation-adjusted. So forget for a moment arguments about social justice. From a purely economic perspective, one can argue that the best place to invest a public or philanthropic dollar is in the early education of an at-risk child. This is not only acting in the public interest, but, at a societal level, in pure financial self-interest.

The Return on Investment of expenditures on K-12 and post-secondary education, while not as high, is unmatched by the ROI in most other areas or by the return on upper-income tax cuts. Yet we seem systematically to be undermining our public education system at every level. Our flagship public university systems, arguably one of the greatest achievements of American democratic society in the 19th century and unequaled anywhere else in the world, are being devastated. What does it say about our shift in priorities when universities founded during the cataclysmic stress of the Civil War are being dismantled at a time when, despite our challenges, we remain by many measures the most prosperous country on earth?

I am the president of a highly selective private college that is actually benefiting from the de-funding of public higher education. As more and more families question the value proposition of once-stellar public institutions, we are seeing a surge in applicants whom we are unable, as a small college, to accommodate. Many of these are students from working-class families who are attracted to Macalester College by our policy of meeting the full need of every student we admit; some are students from families of means who are concerned about larger classes, fewer faculty members, and declining graduation rates at the publics. But I am a citizen and a father even before I am a college president, and I would trade the increase in applications to my institution for more thoughtful and informed public policy at the state and federal level and for a robust system of public education from early childhood through graduate school.

Macalester is a great and respected institution and will thrive. I want to be able to say the same, with an equal level of confidence, about American education across the board and, by extension, American civic life.