Public interest > government interest

We are on a journey to consider 12 modest propositions for higher education policy. In previous posts, I have suggested:

  1. Education for the common good should be a societal priority but not a government bureaucracy.
  2. Individual and societal flourishing encompass far more than economic prosperity.

Now we come to a third proposition.

Proposition #3:

Private (independent) higher education serves the public good.

You don’t have to go back all that far in American history to observe that the notion of a “public” educational institution has undergone a dramatic shift in meaning. For the first 250 years of colonial and national history, “public” school did not mean “government-owned” school. Until at least the late 19th century, designation of a school as “public” simply denoted a school (primary, secondary, postsecondary) that was open and committed to serving all who might benefit.

The 20th century changed all that. Now we are conditioned to speak unthinkingly of government-owned and operated “public” institutions as the only reliable servants of public interest and, with not-so-subtle disparagement and insinuation of exclusivism and elitism, of “private” institutions as purveyors of a private agenda that is presumed to augur against the public good. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (full disclosure, I serve on the NAICU board) compellingly documents the simple truth that, in many ways, America’s nearly 1,800 private colleges and universities advance the public’s educational and social policy priorities more efficiently and effectively than many of their so-called “public” institution counterparts.

Consider the following consensus public priorities for higher education:

Minority/underserved access

  • Private colleges are setting the pace in terms of ethnic minority student percentage growth
  • Ethnic minority enrollment exceeds 33% at more than 600 private colleges (about one-third), and that number has increased by 34% since 2004
  • Half of all students enrolling in private colleges come from families with annual income of $50,000 or less
  • Disproportionate aggregation of ethnic minority students in community college and for-profit education sectors exacerbates the disadvantaged and underclass status of these groups


  • While there are indeed some private colleges with huge endowments and breathtakingly high tuition, the overwhelming majority of private colleges have a net price comparable to 4-year state colleges and universities
  • The overwhelming majority of aid to private college students comes from non-public sources
  • Private colleges award institutional aid to more than 80% of their students
  • Annual net tuition and fees total under $20,000 for nearly half of private colleges and universities

Program completion/graduation

  • Nearly 80% of private college students graduate within four years, compared to 60% of public college students
  • Taking time-to-degree into consideration, the net price for completing a four-year degree at a private college is 20% lower than at a public college

Student debt

  • Student debt for public college students is increasing substantially more than for private college students
  • There are some alarming student indebtedness stories, but
    • the overwhelming majority of large debt is associated with graduate degrees in the medical and legal professions
    • 67% of 4-year college students have debt of less than $25k upon graduation; debt repayment burden averages 4% of post-graduation earnings
    • private college student loan default rates are the lowest of any higher education sector (the real scandal here is the 15+% default rate among for-profit college students)

 Civic/social dividends

  • private college students excel other sectors in the percentage of student involvement in church and community service involvement
  • private college students excel other sectors in the percentage of student involvement in co-curricular enrichment activities

Private colleges: public good

So, let’s concede for a moment that our national higher education policy priorities are the correct ones. Even on those terms, so-called private higher education institutions serve these objectives more efficiently in many respects than so-called public (aka, government) institutions. Private College. Public Purpose. It’s not just a slogan, it’s the truth.

Next time, let’s have a look at what I think should be public policy priorities when it comes to higher education.


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