Higher education is one of our precious resources

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There are two precious sets of resources that account for our national wealth: natural and human-made.

The natural include precious metals, like gold and silver; energy from oil, sun, wind and water; and rich soil for agriculture.

The human-made set includes entertainment, communication, hardware/software, knowledge, ideas and patents.

If we are concerned about getting our money’s worth out of most of these resources through fair-market prices, why are we willing to give away one resource way below its value?

Gold mined in Cripple Creek is worth the same $1,500 per ounce as anywhere else in the world, while we export specialized knowledge for less than it’s worth to foreigners.

There are about 18 million students in higher-education institutions (including 2-year community colleges and other degree granting for-profit universities); around 670,000 of those are foreign students (all numbers are website-related approximations). They pay “out of state” tuition in most cases, unless they arrange residency despite their special status with a student visa and pay “in state tuition” rates.

There are around 4,400 colleges and universities in the U.S., and 4 significant ones in Colorado Springs: Air Force Academy (established in 1955, enrollment 5,000), Colorado College (established in 1874, enrollment 1,900), Pikes Peak Community College (established in 1968, enrollment 12,000), and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (established in 1965, enrollment 9,000).

The significance of each of these institutions for our local economy differs, but their overall impact rivals the defense contribution to our economy. Though the numbers generated by the Chamber of Commerce or city economists about jobs and consumer expenditures are relevant, they fail to address a qualitative question difficult to measure: do they attract businesses and produce knowledge?

Excluding the Air Force Academy (with a national mission to train cadets to become pilots and support staff), the other three are knowledge laboratories and training centers for those planning to relocate as well as those already here looking to either re-tool their skill sets or educate their dependents.

Though we are too dependent on clubs and bars for entertainment, in addition to extensive bike-trails we can boast local colleges/universities that compete nationally with their respective peer-institutions.

State support for the University of Colorado, for example, is around 5 percent of its budget. The rest of the budget comes from tuition, fees (faculty/staff pay $500 for parking), and indirect recovery costs of research funding.

Assume that foreign students with student visas come to study here and then return to their country of origin, a fair assumption during our Great Recession with high employment rate. They acquire general and expert knowledge here and in fact export it when they return to their home countries. Federal grants and state subsidies help finance institutions of higher education in multiple ways, presumably to benefit the future of our country, not to benefit foreign countries that will then compete with us. In fact, we are indirectly subsidizing our competitors!

However federal and state subsidies underwrite academic institutions, the justification has been that these are investments in our future: turning out informed citizens, creative artists, ingenious scientists, innovative engineers, and so on.

Educated citizens in turn contribute to making our economy more advanced and competitive, productive and innovative, with Venture Capital funding most of the ideas and patents that they come up with. Should we give this away cheaply?

Just as out-of-state students pay three times what in-state students pay (with the rationale that the state subsidizes the university), foreign students should pay three times what out-of-state students pay (with the rationale that the federal government subsidizes the university).

Will this be a disincentive for foreign students? I doubt it’ll have any effect on enrollment — American universities are still the best in the world (especially at the graduate and professional level). Emerging markets will take another generation to catch up with our academic infrastructure (which includes democratic institutions).

Is this a xenophobic proposal? Not at all. Diversity will remain robust, since America itself is the most diverse society in the world. Foreign tuition will subsidize domestic recruitment of under-represented domestic populations.

Will it upset our foreign allies? American foreign aid overshadows that of any other country (close to $50 billion in 2011). Having designated ourselves the police force of the world (paid for exclusively by us), wouldn’t it be nice to designate ourselves instead as the knowledge resource of the world and get paid for it?

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS, and the author of A Sanctuary of Their Own: Intellectual Refugees in the Academy (2000). He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com.