Social Justice & Globalization: Reconsidering Public Finance in College Access

By John, Edward P. St. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Social Justice & Globalization: Reconsidering Public Finance in College Access


John, Edward P. St., Harvard International Review


Many nations have expanded college enrollment in fields that will yield more workers for science and technology (S&T) jobs. Two mechanisms have been widely used in pursuit of this goal: 1) using higher tuition coupled with increased borrowing to finance expansion, and 2) redefining college and workforce readiness to include some post-secondary education in S&T fields. Both approaches are prone to promote inequality in opportunities for social mobility and can undermine the goals of social uplift and economic development.

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As a means of bringing social justice into better balance with economic development, governments should reconsider how fairness in college access and social uplift relate to strategies used for higher education expansion. In his State of the Union addresses, President Obama has promoted a neoliberal reform rationale that argues for universal access to higher education as a necessity. Given the pervasiveness of this line of reasoning for expanding access, we need to reconsider how various financing mechanisms can help nations either achieve or undermine this aim. This article provides a framework for examining how public finance schemes improve fairness in access to basic education programs that provide readiness for the S&T workforce and to universities that provide entry to the middle class.

Globalization and the Expansion of College Access

After World War II, most nations expanded higher education as a means of developing national economies, a value promoted by the Marshall Plan in Europe, the Colombo Plan in the Far East, and comprehensive education planning in Communist nations. In Western democracies, an implied social contract carried forward the value of fairness in educational opportunity as a part of the public good. After the Cold War, the neoliberal rationales of global economic development influenced many nations to treat higher education as a private good, justifying the use of high tuition and high loans to expand access. These recent developments necessitate reconsideration of the financial mechanisms used for efficiency in relation to fairness.

Inequality and the Efficiency Rationale

Most nations have responded to neoliberal arguments for educating more S&T workers as a means of improving economic competitiveness. Among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the switch to low-cost strategies for promoting access (e.g. high tuition and high loans) occurred faster in nations in the Pacific region than in Western Europe (Table 1). I summarize developments below for some OECD nations (italics on Table 1) along with several developing nations from recent case studies in books I have co-edited.

Table 1. Analysis of Public Finance Mechanisms
Research-Based Analysis of Public Finance Mechanisms
(bulleted items) Relative to High or Low Impact on Fairness
in Access, Social Uplift and Taxpayer Fairness

Criterion/Impact  Fairness in   Social Uplift    Taxpayer Fairness
                  Access

Strategies with   - High        - No or low      - Low tuition with
Low Impact        tuition       need-based       high need-based
                  - Access      grants           grants
                  limited to    - Over-reliance
                  S&T fields    on loans

Strategies with   - Low or no   - High           - Income-contingent
High Impact       tuition       need-based       loan repayment
                  - High        grants           - Coordinated
                  funding       - Merit-aware    funding for
                  (government   admissions       - High tuition
                  support plus  students and     with high
                  tuition       institutions     need-based grants
                  revenue)

Source: Author, 2013

Pacific Region

Three OECD nations--South Korea, Australia, and the United States--were examined as national cases in the Pacific region. …

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