Everyone is familiar with certain claims made for American higher education: It is the largest and most equitable system in the world; its research and scholarship are unsurpassed; it is the engine driving the American Dream Machine. And indeed, it is all these things. It is one of our national glories.
At the same time, however, it is expensive---and getting more so. Long nurtured through the munificence of state and federal governments, private philanthropy, and grateful alumni, colleges and universities are beginning to find that these resources have limits.
The nation's colleges and universities had combined in- comes of almost $40 billion in the 1975--76 academic year, up from about $13 billion a decade earlier. (College and university enrollments almost doubled during the same period, climbing from 5.9 million to 11.1 million students.) When the "foregone income" of college students is added in, according to economist Howard Bowen, the grand total of all "costs of college" was actually around $85 billion---almost as much as we pay for national defense.
Curiously, while Americans muster these vast sums year after year, they pay little heed to a fundamental, underlying question: Who should pay for higher education? That is, is it a public or a private good? Should it be financed primarily by the entire populace via the tax system, or by students and their families via tuition?
We are far closer to an answer with respect to elementary and secondary education, where the public schools are universal, wholly supported through tax revenues, and therefore "free." Private schools remain an option; but if they were suddenly to disappear, the American commitment to free public elementary and secondary education would remain. Over the past century it has become an established right.