Press-Republican

April 7, 2013

Sometimes government should pick winners

Colin Read, Everybody's Business
Press-Republican

— I recently read an opinion piece from a liberal-arts major who complained that the increasing talk among governors on subsidizing study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is an inappropriate case of the government picking winners.

I personally wish our government would pick more winners. After all, there are many activities that would not be done sufficiently if the government did not devote our tax revenue to them. The interstate highway system, national defense, the justice system and international trade agreements are all public goods the government provides to make our economy more efficient. The private sector can help but can’t do it all, so this is a legitimate role for government.

One other public good may be even more important. We need a well-educated workforce, and this requires education beyond high school. Unfortunately, education is expensive, often outpacing inflation, and our economy cannot afford to fail low-income children.

The subsidy our nation offers to higher education has been falling over the past couple decades. Even our SUNY schools, which started with a goal of making higher education almost free, now leaves four-year graduates with between $50,000 and $100,000 in debt upon graduation. Students who borrow to fund a four-year degree at a private college may be a quarter-million dollars in debt by the time they graduate.

Imagine a 17- or 18-year-old who just got their license and who believes a new car would enhance their quality of life in their senior year. They go down to the car lot and tell the dealer they want a new car. The dealer tells them they can have any car they want, and they won’t have to start paying for another five years when they land a job after college.

If that’s how we sold cars, a lot more kids would be driving around in Ferraris. Unfortunately, it is how we sell education. We leave to teenagers these important decisions that will affect their financial future for decades and will affect our global competitiveness for generations. They may be saddled with debt for their entire working life.

While our economy needs our children to be educated, we also need them to receive an education that will pay dividends to our economy and offer a bright future. Education decisions of our children are simply too important to leave up to them. Our children need a balanced education in the liberal arts that gives them the cultural perspective and creativity necessary for a harmonious society. But, we also need many more to be our next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.

If we don’t want our government influencing our children’s education choices, then who will? The teenagers? The academic disciplines that want to pull our children in their direction to perpetuate their chosen course of study? The universities that worry more about profit and loss than about global competitiveness? Or, we parents who may know a lot about what we do, but not so much about what our economy needs to thrive?

Only government can develop a long-term economic strategy followed by an education strategy, and then get our education institutions to align with these strategies. We may be uncomfortable with government picking winners and losers among the disciplines in higher education, but, if not them, whom?

We live in a land of free choice. Maybe we can’t prevent our teenagers from buying an impractical sports car that will drop in value far earlier than the loan can be paid off. But adults can do a much better job counselling the next generation about their choices.

We ought to make our teenagers offers they can’t refuse. Society will share in some of the cost for anything college-bound teenagers want to study. But, if our teenagers study in critical areas for which we have dire shortages, and for which we increasingly rely on the registration of sensible teenagers from other countries who study here, we will make their education essentially free.

I want our government to have an education plan and to offer deeper subsidies for those willing to study the hard stuff that too many are loathe to take. It doesn’t concern me that such programs, in science, engineering, medicine and other disciplines to which international students flock, also offer higher salaries. Let that be icing on teenagers’ cakes.

Colin Read contributes to Bloomberg.com and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow his tweets at @ColinRead2040.