Why Does Public Higher Education Matter?

The Future of a Graduate - Education

An Overview of Higher Education

Any given day, you might wonder the very question the title of this article poses. Higher education is beneficial for everyone. It’s a grand statement, but it is a statement that is nonetheless supported by research. Dr. Philip Trostel, an economics professor at University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, School of Economics, and School of Policy & International Affairs, has published a study and accumulation of knowledge on the subject that sheds light on the lesser known benefits of higher education. According to Trostel, these benefits can be broken down into different subcategories, each associated with different sectors of society.

And surprisingly enough, the benefits of a higher education are not limited to the degree holder.

Trostell’s research aims to illuminate the public on the lesser known benefits of higher education, which can be grouped into a few basic categories. Private benefits are the benefits that affect the degree holder, as do fringe benefits, an example of which might be employer contributions to health insurance. “External” or “spillover” benefits are a product of private benefits that effectively spill over and affect the rest of society. Fiscal externalities represent the other fiscal benefits that arise as a result of a degree holder’s higher education qualifications (i.e. higher taxes paid as a result of higher wages, reduced utilization of government public assistance and more).

Trostell observes that among Americans with bachelor’s degrees (and without graduate degrees) compared to high school graduates never attending college in 2012, there are a great number of noteworthy trends:

  • Annual earnings are about $32,000 (134%) higher.
  • The incidence of poverty is 3.5 times lower.
  • The likelihood of having health insurance through employment is 47% higher. Annual additional compensation in the form of employer contributions for health insurance is $1,400 (74%) greater.
  • Job safety is greater. The incidence of receiving workers’ compensation is 2.4 times lower.
  • The probability of being employed is 24% higher.
  • The likelihood of being unemployed is 2.2 times lower.
  • The likelihood of reporting health to be very good or excellent is 44% greater.
  • The likelihood of being a regular smoker is 3.9 times lower. The incidence of obesity and heavy drinking are significantly lower. The likelihood of exercising, having a healthy diet, wearing seat belts and seeking preventative medical care are significantly higher.
  • The probability of being in prison or jail is 4.9 times lower.
  • The likelihood of being happy is significantly higher.

The benefits mentioned above (among others) are benefits that directly affect the degree holder only and can be thusly categorized as private or fringe benefits.

As Trostell outlines in his research, however, what often isn’t factored into the value of higher education is the ripple effect that follows after the stone – in this analogy, education – has been thrown into the pond of a student’s life. Compared in the same 2012 dynamic mentioned above, the benefits to society are real and measurable:

  • Lifetime taxes are, conservatively, $273,000 (215%) greater in present discounted value (using a 3% real interest rate and taking into account forgone taxes in college). That is, college graduates contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars more toward government services and social insurance programs.
  • Lifetime government expenditures are about $81,000 (39%) lower in present value. College graduates rely much less on other taxpayers.
  • Crime is significantly lower.
  • Volunteering is 2.3 times more likely. The estimated value of volunteer labor is 4.1 times ($1,300 annually) greater.
  • Employment in the nonprofit sector is twice as likely. The estimated value of the implicit wage contribution to nonprofits is 8.7 times ($1,500 annually) greater.
  • Annual cash donations to charities are $900 (3.4 times) higher.
  • Voting and political involvement are significantly higher.
  • Participation in school, community, service, civic, and religious organizations is substantially (1.9 times) higher. Leadership in these organizations is particularly (3.2 times) greater.
  • Community involvement is significantly greater.
  • Neighborhood interactions and trust are significantly higher.

Everyone has heard that education matters: just recall the oft-repeated motto “knowledge is power”. As Trostell and numerous other researchers have observed, the value of higher education is strongly linked to opportunity.



1. a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.

2. a chance for employment or promotion.

In fact, a 45-year trend report assessing higher education equity in the United States released by the Pell Institute and PennAHEAD begins with a quote from Harry S. Truman from the President’s Commission on Higher Education report made in 1947. What he said was this: “If the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at the doors of others, while at the same time formal education is made a prerequisite to occupational and social advance, then education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening and solidifying them.”

Where Public Higher Education Comes In

If one considers recent events and trends in education, not just in Connecticut but across the United States, Truman’s words read as oddly prophetic. Specifically, since 1980, the U.S. has experienced a consistent and notable decline in state-funded support of public higher education institutions. State and local universities have a lot hinging on state support, as do students of humble backgrounds and/or social situations firmly attached to everyday realities. Little do most people realize the connection between the two however: that state colleges are constantly propelling students into different social categories by conferring degrees upon them.

And still people wonder: why does public higher education matter? There is not just one answer for why public higher education matters, not only to United States and Connecticut, but to individual human beings. There are pages and pages of research on the matter. But you could sum up the research in one short answer: opportunity.

Read the stories that first generation students have shared about their experiences at public higher education institutions. Public higher education institutions have changed the social worlds of students from humble beginnings across the U.S. as well as the state of Connecticut and they continue to do so day in and day out.

Looking at the wealth of knowledge and considering the trends, it seems like there are a lot of reasons why public higher education matters. But unfortunately the burden is on citizens to help federal and state politicians and legislators recognize its value.

Lend public higher education your voice. There are many ways to show your support for Connecticut public higher education. Call your legislator today, or share this article and like us on Facebook to help spread the word.


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