I thought I would blog about some thoughts about public education. I should come clean and say that I am the product of a private college. I did get my doctorate at a public university though.
Private colleges are often excellent but they are expensive. It costs a lot of money to pay for the small class sizes and highly trained and accomplished professors to teach them. Such small, private colleges are typically only open to students who are exceptional enough to win scholarships or come from families that are relatively wealthy (or some combination of the two). A completely privatized tertiary education system will serve mainly the upper classes in society. If we want education to enable at least the possibility of class mobility from one generation to another, there must be a public component to it. And this public component must be of a quality that is at least credible. It cannot be that private colleges turn out highly trained and educated graduates while the publics become little more than diploma mills. Many public universities provide a high quality education. The problem is that providing high quality education costs money and states are increasingly unwilling to provide that money. The result is either tuition must go up or quality will go down. If tuition goes up, the publics become more and more like the privates, serving mainly the upper classes. If quality goes down, the value of the public degree relative to the private degree goes down and its ability to provide for some social mobility decreases.
There is another important role for both public and private education. In the American economy, most workers change employers several times in the course of their careers. They may change companies, industries, perhaps they will even go back to school and change their skill set. This fluid labor market is the hallmark of the American economy. There are many advantages to it. One of the consequences though is that companies have little if any incentive to provide training to their employees. Why should GM, GE or Microsoft spend a lot of money and time training all of their employees when they know that each of these employees is likely to leave the company in the future? In this context, the constant supply of trained potential employees is a public good that no one company will see it as worth while to provide for themselves. The systems especially needs people with a broad and flexible skill set that can adapt quickly to the particular needs of a variety different potential employers with different needs.
Now, as the economy in the United States shifts more and more to services and high tech sectors, employers need more and more workers with broader skill sets. Privates alone cannot meet that demand.
A note about vocational training: There is also a serious need for vocational training (plumbing skills, electronics, etc). There is also a public/private divide among vo-tech schools. In some states, Indiana for example, private vo-tech schools have taken over from underfunded community colleges. You see them advertising on TV. These are often respectable places (the ones in Indiana have a quite good reputation). But people tend to want their services at exactly the moment they are losing a job or changing to another industry. Coming up with the money to pay for a year or two of "up skilling" can be most challenging at precisely the moment when it is most needed.
Public education needs to be robust at precisely the times when the economy is doing poorly. But the general public/political reaction to an economic down turn is to place disproportionate shares of the budget cutting burden on education. This is an unfortunate development. In the medium and long term it will serve to continue exactly the class divisions that generate so much resentment of "elitism" etc. I fear a continuing spiral in which decreasing public support for education leads to increasing tuition which then breeds more resentment which leads to another round of decreased public support. The end result will be an overwhelmingly private education system that serves mainly to lock class distinctions in place rather than enable people to move from class to class across generations.