In an article in Brookings, two of its researchers argue that public spending on universities may be defended by their contribution to social mobility (“ladders”) and/or too valuable knowledge (“labs”). If they do neither particularly well, they are lagging behind their mission (“laggards”). Using public data sets, they argue that:
The upper-middle class is substantially over-represented in American public universities; Public investment in higher education too often fails to produce either social mobility or socially beneficial research, and The significant public subsidies spent on the education of the relatively affluent could be better spent elsewhere.
The show that only five out of ten of the 342 public HE institutions in their analysis score better on social mobility than the overall average in all US higher education institutions (excluding so-called “non-selective students”). Low mobility institutions don’t, as a rule, make up for that by high scores on research: the majority of “low mobility” institutions also scores low on research.
This leads the authors to their conclusion that tax money on public universities goes to affluent upper-middle-class students and has a low return on investment as an item of public expenditure.