The Mission of Education: Why We Subsidize Post-Secondary Education

Posted on Feb 21, 2013

From early childhood through the post-secondary level, education in the United States is subsidized by taxes, grants, and donations because we believe that it provides profound benefits to our society, challenging students to create lives of meaning and purpose and providing them with the tools to sustain this process for themselves and others. To the extent that we, in higher education, have forgotten this important mission, we risk collapsing into a fee-for-service industry in which we simply convey information and train narrowly for the workforce.

In the United States, markets allocate goods, with consumers and producers determining prices, providing signals for the allocation of resources. And for many, many goods and services, these markets tend to work very well.

However, we recognize that markets are not always able to provide all of the services that benefit our society, and so we also support activities and subsidize programs not in markets but which hold meaning for us. In 2011, Americans gave nearly $300 billion in charitable contributions; 117 million U.S. households, 12 million corporations, 99,000 estates, and 76,000 foundations gave to charities during the year. (Reuters, June 19, 2012) We provide such support because we believe in the missions of these institutions and want to increase the impact of their programs.

In addition to giving directly, we also subsidize a whole host of services and activities provided by the government and financed through our taxes. Usually, these are services that produce benefits to society at large, outside of those who are directly consuming or producing them. Economists call these benefits “positive externalities” and recognize that free markets will likely underprovide these goods without any intervention—subsidizing them increases their use and enhances the welfare of society at large.

As in many nations, primary and secondary education in the United States is subsidized. Making basic education available provides the necessary (but not sufficient!) conditions for a well-informed population so that a representational democracy can operate, and we maintain a society comprised of individuals who have the basic skills required to join the labor force, act responsibly, and have the tools necessary to face the many global challenges faced by humans today.

Post-secondary education is also subsidized. Virtually all private and public institutions, both 2-year and 4-year, subsidize their students’ educations through donations, grants or with public funding. For example, in 2009, Connecticut’s 55,000 community college students paid for 21 percent of the total cost of their education—the highest rate in the last 20 years. (CT Mirror, December 8, 2010) At private liberal arts colleges and large universities, subsidies are provided at just about every level; for example, the Harvard Law School website states that “[e]very student enrolled at Harvard Law School receives an implicit subsidy from the School’s endowment and the annual gifts made to the Law School by generous benefactors, in that the tuition fee covers only about 60% of the total cost of providing a quality legal education to each student.”

Why don’t we expect students to pay the full cost of their education? If the only goal of post-secondary education were to provide accurate information and vocational training, then most students would simply pay the full cost and receive the returns in terms of higher income throughout their careers, just like an investment in a financial market. If all schools are doing is training for the labor market and signaling to future employers, then subsidies do not really make sense. Sure, some subsidies would be available in recognition of profound differences in preparation and access, but we would not have reason to subsidize all students.

Let me be clear before continuing further: an education that provides skills to serve the labor market is vital for individuals, the economy and our society. Providing the means to engage in meaningful work is obviously important.

However, the reason we continue to subsidize post-secondary education is to produce benefits beyond those that simply accrue to the student him or herself through vocational training and employment.

Education must create environments for our students to inquire and challenge themselves about the meaning of their lives and the lives of others; this is the primary mission of education. Our courses must offer challenging reflections on how the material relates to our students’ values, allowing them to discern the nature of the impact they want to have in the world.

We must return to this mission and attend to it throughout our classes, student services, career counseling—all aspects of higher education.

I believe that many in higher education have forgotten about this primary mission, and that this explains why so many in higher education are concerned about its purpose.

Christina Elliott Sorum, writing about this issue from the perspective of liberal arts in 2005, said, “It seems to me that our mission—why we teach what we teach—is muddled, especially with regard to the questions of whether we should or can teach values and of why the liberal arts are relevant beyond the teaching of skills.” From the vantage point of 2013, I agree with her statement: “It is no longer clear to our students—I fear, in part, because it is not clear to us—that the liberal arts prepare us to be better persons and better citizens and leaders in today’s world.” (Christina Elliott Sorum “The Problem of Mission: A Brief Survey of the Changing Mission of the Liberal Arts,” in Liberal Arts Colleges in American Higher Education: Challenges and Opportunities ACLS, Occasional Paper No. 59, 2005.)

This mission, of challenging our students to inquire as to what it means to be a good citizen of this world, must be supported—and needs to be subsidized, since all beings benefit from it. We subsidize our students’ education since that is how we create and support a vibrant and ethical society.

We have the means to do this: to complement our teaching by integrating students’ sense of engagement and purpose directly into their studies.

The first step in this process is for students to become clear about what is most deeply meaningful to them—what are their values? It is vital that we provide exercises and time for students to reflect on how the material in their courses affects and challenges their own sense of meaning. Along with guidance in this inquiry, students need to be supported in learning to attend to the implications and consequences of their actions; without an understanding of the impact our behavior has on ourselves and on others, we are destined to create harm and suffering. This requires clarity and sustained attention; expedient gains from abandoning meaning seem so alluring, and actions based in violence, lust or greed have such obvious costs. But once this inquiry is established and supported, students can begin to focus on their intention and alter behavior that is not in accord with it.

To support our students in the inquiry as to what means most deeply to them, and to provide them the tools to live out that meaning in the world is the primary mission of education. Analytic thinking, fostered and developed so well by academic institutions, also benefits from the complement of these contemplative approaches—enabling students to relate their learning directly to their own lives and act in ways that they value, deepening their understanding of the material they are studying.

Join us at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society as we address and confront these issues. Learn more at


Daniel Barbezat is Professor of Economics at Amherst College and Executive Director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Over the past decade, he has become interested in how self-awareness and introspection can be used in post-secondary education, economic decision-making and creating and sustaining well-being. With the support of a Contemplative Practice Fellowship in 2008, he has developed courses that integrate contemplative exercises designed to enable students to gain deeper understanding and insight. His approach to these economic classes has been featured in the Boston Globe, the U.S. News & World Report, as well as on the NPR program “Here & Now.”

Along with experimental research on choice and awareness, he is currently editing a group of papers on examples of contemplative pedagogy across the disciplines with Arthur Zajonc, co-writing a book with Mirabai Bush on contemplative pedagogy, and writing a book entitled Wanting.

One Comment

  1. Subsidy does not determine the students’ performance.

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