Does the investment of taxpayer dollars in public universities and colleges pay off for American society? It depends a great deal on how one perceives their primary purpose. Is it education, or something else entirely? An intriguing study from Brookings Institute argues that the primary purposes of publicly funded higher education are research and “social mobility,” and that the disproportional enrollment of more affluent students calls that investment into question:

Almost a third of all students enrolled in these universities come from households in the top quintile of the income distribution, and just 8 percent come from families in the bottom quintile. Two in three of these schools (65 percent) have more students from the top quintile than the bottom 40 percent. Over 30 percent have more students from the top quintile than the bottom 60 percent. …

These subsidies may be a good investment. Universities bring many benefits; they can provide an education for citizenship in a democratic society, impart the wisdom of the liberal arts, and teach young men and women the job skills needed for an increasingly specialized labor market. Here, however, we restrict our focus to the two most celebrated purposes of the American public university system: serving as engines of social mobility and producing world-class research. …

It is troubling that a quarter of selective public universities are laggards, scoring poorly in terms of both producing research and facilitating social mobility, especially given the extensive public subsidies they receive. Nor can these colleges claim that they are serving a representative student body. In fact, the social class background of their students is almost identical to that for the sample as a whole. Almost thirty percent of students at low-mobility, low-research institutions come from the top quintile of earners, while under 7 percent come from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution.

We’ll get back to the primary purpose in a moment. In their conclusion, Dimitrios Halikias and Richard Reeves point to unequal outcomes to suggest ending public investment in higher education in favor of other efforts to improve social mobility:

A university education is a wonderful thing. But there are many wonderful things in life, and the government doesn’t need to pay for all of them. That’s especially true for students from the upper middle class, who dominate the current system and enter college with substantial advantages in life already. We are a very long way from the ideal of higher education as the “great equalizer,” with colleges acting as engines of mobility, leveling the playing field for each generation. Rather, public higher education too often provides yet another chance for the upper middle class to engage in opportunity hoarding at the expense of the taxpayer—and even worse, at the expense of students from low-income families. …

A broader approach to higher education reform should emphasize and support alternative paths to upward mobility. A great many community colleges, for example, are success stories that remain forgotten and underappreciated. Similarly, apprenticeships and programs that lead to certification of marketable skill sets may be a valuable way to give disadvantaged students much-needed job skills.

Before we get to issues in core assumptions that predicate this study, the advice here is actually … pretty good. Given the skyrocketing levels of student debt for graduates, it might make a lot more sense to emphasize vocational training that offers a much lower cost and the opportunity to access good-paying jobs in the trades. If we ever hope to reorient the US economy more toward domestic manufacturing, those are the skills and resources that will be needed up front.

Unfortunately, Halikias and Reeves leave their recommendation unclear as to whether this should be a blanket approach, or only applied to the “upper middle class” through penalties such as higher tuition (to cancel out “subsidies”) or perhaps an even more narrow path to scholarships. The core problem with this analysis, however, is the premium that its authors put on “social mobility” as the primary purpose of public education. In my column at The Fiscal Times, I argue that education should be the core purpose, and that distraction from it is what’s causing many of the headaches in higher education today:

While both social mobility and research might qualify as desirable secondary goods from universities and colleges, neither of those are the primary purpose for funding higher education at public institutions. For that matter, neither social mobility nor research is the exclusive province of higher education. An argument could be made that both could be achieved with far lower investment in public funds than that required to maintain costly universities. Research grants could shift more toward private institutions, which would then expand employment opportunities and perhaps introduce more accountability into the use of that funding. Small business loans on a broader basis could boost social mobility much more directly – and could get better targeted with means-testing screening.

As noted, Reeves and Halikias hint at those possibilities, too. But that doesn’t mean that the question of value should be dropped, either, because there are more problems than this study covers:

According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the costs have skyrocketed at precisely a moment where one would have expected a decline. Total expenditures in the 2007-8 school year, at the start of the Great Recession, were a little over $261 billion. By the 2013-14 academic year, expenditures nearly hit $324 billion, an increase of 24 percent. Expenditures at four-year public schools rose 25.3 percent in the same six-year period.

Did that improve the education delivered by these schools, and therefore improve the prospects for their students? Not exactly, as the Federal Bank of New York discovered in a new study (an example, by the way, of research performed outside the university system). Between 2001 and 2009, public college tuition rose eighty-one percent during this period and contributed significantly to the debt crisis faced by college students.

That debt load contributed as much as a third of “the observed approximate eight-percentage-point decline in homeownership for 28-to-30-year-olds over 2007-15 for these same nine cohorts.” The NY Fed predicts “weaker spending and wealth accumulation among young consumers in the years to come,” not exactly an encouraging sign for social mobility.

On top of that, the social-protest movements and the demands for speech codes and other tools of ideological conformity have transformed education into indoctrination at many of these schools. Parents have already begun to rebel, with the University of Missouri only the most well-covered example.

Our friend and Hot Air alum Noah Rothman sums up the problem at USA Today (via Instapundit):

Occasionally, an authoritarian impulse to restrict free expression is encouraged by college administrators. In an April op-ed for The New York TimesNew York University vice provost Ulrich Baer praised “snowflakes” for recognizing that “alt-right demagogues” were a threat to the rights, “legal and cultural, of minorities to participate in public discourse.”

But this “no platforming” movement isn’t strategic or thoughtful. It’s more like a mob. Occasionally, genuinely controversial speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos or Charles Murray are successfully “no-platformed” off campuses amid property destruction and physical violence. But other conservatives who have been run off — including Ben Shapiro, Condoleezza Rice, Jason Riley, Christina Hoff Sommers and Ayaan Hirsi Ali — suggest Baer’s “snowflakes” have a grotesquely distorted view of what constitutes alt-right demagoguery.  …

The intellectual cloistering that typifies colleges today has trickled down from faculty member to student. The product these schools now turn out is a stultified, juvenile creature. Graduates are less prepared for the real world than they were four years and a quarter million dollars ago. It’s hardly conservatives’ fault for gazing at this Garden of Earthly Delights and recoiling.

It’s not just that this study misses the point of education being the primary mission of colleges and universities. It’s that the colleges and universities have forgotten about it, too. The Brookings study is worth reading in depth, but it misses the main reason for questioning the public investment in higher education — whether or not we’re giving students an education while we’re saddling them with life-crippling debt. Hopefully, we’ll see a study to address that, but, er … don’t expect it to come from “world class research” at public universities.