Highways and Higher Education: What the Government Does Well and Why It Should Keep Doing It

According to one popular narrative, the federal government is the institutional equivalent of Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes: a bumbling neer-do-well whose dictatorial nature is mitigated only by its incompetence. Under the terms of this narrative, the government never does anything right, or, at least, anything that private enterprise cannot do cheaper, better, and faster. When in doubt, privatize.

This narrative resonates with many people because almost all of us have our own first-hand stories of government incompetence, but it has always seemed to me that it is subject to two airtight rejoinders: the US Interstate Highway System and  the American Higher Education system. These are the most ambitious and successful projects of their kind ever undertaken anywhere in the world. They have both provided benefits to the American public that far outweigh their costs. And they would both have been impossible without the cooperation of both state and federal governments.

Let’s begin with the highways. In 1919, a young army captain with an interest in tank warfare joined a convoy travelling from Washington DC to San Francisco. The trip took 62 days at an average speed of 5 miles an hour, and Dwight Eisenhower carried the memory of that trip through World War II and into the White House, where he oversaw the construction of the Interstate System. Over strong Congressional opposition—characterizing him as a free-spending liberal exceeding his Constitutional authority—Eisenhower soldiered on, eventually securing passage of the $25 billion dollar Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.  The US Highway systems remains, in the words of well-known non-liberal George Will, “the most successful public works program in the history of the world.”

When Eisenhower travelled across the country in 1919, he was, by virtue of his graduation from West Point, one of the 3% of Americans who had a four-year college degree. This percentage did not change substantially until Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the GI Bill in 1944. And it did not shoot up decisively until a conservative Republican, Richard Nixon, signed legislation creating the Pell Grant in 1972. As the Federal government made higher education affordable, state governments began to meet the new demand by investing heavily in their state institutions. By the late 1970’s, states were spending an average of about 8% of their total budgets on higher education.

Just as it had been with highway spending, the result of this investment in higher education was dramatically increased access to important thoroughfares. College-going rates skyrocketed, and a college degree went from being a luxury only imaginable to the super rich to a goal well within the reach of every American. And when access increased, the productivity of the American worker increased with it, resulting in an unparalleled period of economic prosperity during which the median standard of living for Americans increased sevenfold.

It turns out, however, that, while both state and federal support for highways has remained fairly constant, support for higher education reached its high-water mark in about 1979. Just between 2011 and 2012, for example,  state support for higher education fell by more than 7.6% nationally. State universitys that once received 60-70% of their funding from state governments are now hovering around the mid-to-low twenties, making in-state tuition at many schools nearly indistinguishable from that charged by elite private institutions. And Pell Grants, which once covered nearly 100% of the educational expenses for economically disadvantaged students now support less than half of the tuition and boarding expenses at a regional public university.

And these decisions, too, have consequences. The rapid disinvestment in American higher education has already had dramatic effects. Americans have fallen from first place to fifteenth place in college completion rates worldwide, and now rank right behind the Slovak Republic. And the percentage of international students who rank America as their country of choice for higher education is now about half of what it was in 1970. As access to education continues to decrease, the result will be a less educated, less competitive work force in which almost all of the advantages go to the children of parents who can afford college without the government’s help—which is exactly how it worked BEFORE American became an economic and military superpower.

I am not complaining. I know that times are tough and that everybody must be part of the solution. What I am doing, however, is pointing out that the decisions we make right now will have long-lasting consequences. The Interstate Highway System took 40 years to build, and it has changed almost everything about transportation in America. The cross country trip that took Captain Eisenhower 62 days can now be accomplished in about four and a half. If we were to let it wither away, or make it available only to those who could afford to subsidize its maintenance, we would all pay a tremendous price: Americans everywhere would become less connected, less secure, and less great.

And we can expect precisely the same thing if we continue to allow what was once the world’s greatest higher education system to wither away, or to revert back to what it once was.