Margaret Wente Post-Secondary Education Public Good

wente way off the mark.

Here’s a letter that I emailed to the Globe & Mail yesterday…

Margaret Wente’s column yesterday has bought, hook line and sinker, the argument from McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum: low tuition is bad because it doesn’t help people from marginal socioeconomic groups access post-secondary, and it hurt education quality.

The argument misses the point entirely: the question is, is Education a public good or a private good? Primary and secondary schooling is an undisputed public good, and post-secondary is still something of a public good to the extent that it is still somewhat publicly funded; however, post-secondary education being privatized right under our noses in the sense that quality post-secondary is increasingly the exclusive domain of the socioeconomic elite.

Consider the popular argument that lowering tuition would represent a subsidy to wealthy students (and their families) who can already afford to attend — the heart of this argument is an admission that the elite are over-represented, which should itself be a point of serious concern. However, it also ignores the disparate reality that there are a lot of students (let’s say at least the half who emerge with student debt) who struggle to make ends meet and are thus distracted from their studies.

The result is a kind of three-tiered education environment: there are those who can afford to study without financial stress, there are those who can afford to study but only under the condition of financial stress (which is a significant disadvantage), and then there in the third group are people of more than ample aptitude who have written off post-secondary out of aversion to financial stress.

Economists like to say that price sends a strong signal: so far this debate seems to have focused on the notion that high tuition is required for high quality, but the flip-side of this argument is the signal high tuition is sending to young people: ‘higher learning isn’t for everyone, this is just for the best of the best.’ In this sense, it is a question more of values than of value: do we want to distributed advanced learning primarily among the elite, or do we want to make it accessible to all Canadians on a level financial playing field, with room for everyone who is qualified?