Michael Rosen claims that spending on prisons has crowded out spending on higher education, implying that the latter is now (or perhaps always was) inadequate.
There is no doubt that we spend a lot more on prisons these days and I agree that we ought to take a good hard look at sentencing and parole practices. Rosen argues that the "multiplier" effect is less for spending on prisons than it is for higher education. While I am skeptical about claims of "multiplier effects," I'll concede that point. It sounds right.
But the value of spending on prison is not the invigoration of the local economy in Waupun. It is preventing crime. People in jail don't commit them. To truly assess the economic value of prison spending, you would have to compare it to the economic losses that it prevents. I've seen studies that suggest that, on this basis, increased prison spending has been justified but I am not an expert and don't claim to know. As a limited-government type, I think that all public expenditures should be rigorously scrutinized and prisons are no different.
What about higher education? Let's begin with a statement of self interest. I work for a university. Granted it's private, but I am still rather fond of spending on higher education.
Rosen claims that we have reduced state subsidies to higher education by 6% over the past twenty years. (This is in inflation adjusted dollars; nominal spending is higher.) Is that a problem? It's not self evidently one. There was a time when our state university system was larger than any other outside New York or California. While I don't know if this is still the case, we continue to have one of the largest systems in the country, so this decline was from an already high level of spending. That doesn't prove it was a good idea, but it provides perspective.
What is problematic, Rosen says, is that we have shifted the burden to students and their families, noting that, over the past ten years, tuition for the WTCS has increased by 54.6% and UW-Madison by over 80%, (While these are apparently increases in nominal dollars (Rosen doesn't say), we know that inflation over that period would only account for about a 30% increase.)
We can argue about whether shifting the cost of higher education to those who receive it is a bad thing. There is an increasing earnings premium for higher education (much higher than it was when I went to college - one of the reasons for increasing income disparity) and it may not be unreasonable to ask those who will enjoy that premium to bear more of the cost. This is the rationale for student loans. One borrows against expected future income. While I don't believe that monetary benefits are the sole measure of a college - or even law school - education (there are circumstances in which I think that substantial subsidy, although not necessarily from the government, is a good thing), we should pause a bit over why and under what circumstances the public at large ought to subsidize education that may be very lucrative to the educated.
But these increases, for good or bad, can't be explained by a 6% real reduction in state subsidies. What has happened is that the universities and colleges have substantially increased their spending in real terms and the cost has been, increasingly, recouped by higher tuition.
Rosen suggests that this is the reason that the number of students whose family income is in the bottom quintile has dropped from 14.5% to 11%. That could be, but I can think of a lot of other reasons for that and, given the widespread availability of financial aid and loans, the inference that he wants to draw is not obvious.