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A College Parking Lot, Deficit Reduction, and Public Investment

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April 16, 2013 04:50 pm


Last week I spent two days visiting the University of California-Berkeley, one of the nation’s most prestigious higher education and research institutions. Walking the campus linked UCB’s major accomplishments – ranging from STEM to public policy – with the buildings that housed the people that created them. The throngs of passing students were a United Nations in languages and dress.

This is a public university, created and run by the state of California and funded by the taxpayer. Rivaling well- known private selective institutions, UCB produces state, national, and international leaders in almost every field. This is a publicly-funded institution where the physics building’s parking lot has six prime spots “Reserved for Nobel Laureates.”

Yet even this major institution that has created much of California’s intellectual infrastructure and resulting economic growth has seen reductions in state investment in past years. Against the backdrop of my walk, I replayed the constant political refrain that ending deficit spending is the most important issue facing the nation.

In this era when developing and applying knowledge is increasingly what defines an economy, reducing fiscal deficits pales with the need to reduce educational deficits. Indeed, fiscal deficits will not be reduced until educational outcomes improve for all students, whether graduating from high school, participating in postsecondary job training, or attending undergraduate and graduate institutions.

Relax deficit hawks. This is no appeal for unfettered and unchecked taxpayer funding. Nor do I have any interest in pouring public dollars into propping up antiquated and increasingly less productive educational processes. Simply dropping more dollars to continue the same-old-same-old isn’t an answer, either.

Yet equally high on the mindless scale is arbitrarily reducing funds to appease the deficit reduction gods. The latest offering at the federal-fiscal altar is sequestration. Cut everything equally. Equally stupid for defense and domestic discretionary spending – particularly when this across-the-board reduction comes on the heels of approximately $1.7 trillion in spending cuts and $600 billion in tax increases from the last session of Congress.

Another piece of the BCA was setting up the sequestration process as the unacceptable doomsday mechanism in the then- unthinkable scenario that Congress and the administration failed to reach agreement on another $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years. (For an excellent summary of recent deficit reduction history, see the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities website.

But I digress. The real issue is the importance of reducing educational deficits. So let’s return to the University of California campus in Berkeley. Strolling the sunlit grounds I wandered into the Physics Building parking lot with its reserved spots for Nobel Laureates.

How much economic gain came from the initial public investment that created the education and research opportunities for these accomplishments, I wondered? While corporate and philanthropic dollars often are a mainstay, it is the initial taxpayer dollar that provided the institution, the talent, and the students–the future talent pool–that led to these scientific and economic gains.

Would deficit reduction that meant one, maybe fewer of these parking lot reminders be acceptable? Or would our national GDP be further enhanced by public investment that led to three additional, similarly-reserved reserved parking spots? In this information- dominated economy, isn’t the deficit more likely to shrink as a percentage of GDP when more, not fewer students are able to walk college campuses and take advantage of post-secondary programs that not only advance their income – earning potential, but also increase their contribution to our consumer-driven economy?

For further information of the economic gains from boosting education, see the Hanushek-OECD study for boosting PISA scores and the Alliance’s paper on the economic necessity of equity in education


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.