A Tax for Higher Education
Here’s a puzzle: The gasoline tax is to transportation as what is to higher education?
The economic logic of the gas tax is simple. It goes toward the cost of roads, transit, and other transportation improvements, and the people who pay it are the people who benefit from it. For higher education, the answer is tougher. Individual “users” benefit, financially and otherwise, but so does society as a whole. Economists say you could think of tuition as their share of that cost. (Whether tuition covers the right share relative to the benefit is another question.) But what about society’s share? Shouldn’t there be a dedicated tax for that benefit?
The argument for yes seems apparent.
In financial terms alone, the payoffs to society are “astronomical,” says Phillip A. Trostel, a professor of economics at the University of Maine at Orono. Based on what he calls conservative calculations, the returns to the federal and state governments from their spending on higher education over students’ lifetimes amount to 10 times the expenditures.
Yet on a nationwide basis, states’ support for higher education per full-time-equivalent student has fallen to just $6,290, the lowest in 15 years.