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Morality of using public services?

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Obviously, the existence of things like public schools and public libraries and the like is immoral, and perhaps those services are of much worse quality than their private counterparts. The question is: Is it immoral to make use of the services? When I have children (admittedly a time far away, as I'm 16), is it immoral for me to send them to public school? On the one hand, I have paid for the service through my taxes, while on the other I don't know that I would ever feel comfortable using a service to pay for which others are forced. Similar objections come up with things like public libraries and public transportation(though this last to a lesser extent, since one pays each time one uses the service).

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Obviously, the existence of things like public schools and public libraries and the like is immoral, and perhaps those services are of much worse quality than their private counterparts. The question is: Is it immoral to make use of the services? When I have children (admittedly a time far away, as I'm 16), is it immoral for me to send them to public school? On the one hand, I have paid for the service through my taxes, while on the other I don't know that I would ever feel comfortable using a service to pay for which others are forced. Similar objections come up with things like public libraries and public transportation(though this last to a lesser extent, since one pays each time one uses the service).

The basic answer is, as long as you don't advocate that the government has a right to forcibly tax you, utilizing those services is a means of re-couping the tax money that was already taken from you. You may oppose involuntary taxation, but the government is going to take your money anyway so if you need to, use the public schools and the public libraries, etc.

Some services, though improperly funded, are rightfully in the domain of the government, such as the police, the courts and the military.

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Alright... I guess in the end it doesn't really matter, since public schools are terrible anyway and only seem to be getting worse. I'd never put my child through that.

The question of public schooling does matter, because like many others on this forum, I spend most of my time taking advantage of a public university. I do feel like I'm morally sanctioning the taxation of the people of the state I live in, and I do feel guilty about it in a sense, despite knowing that the money I save by going here is less than what has been lost by my family through taxes. By attending school here I feel that I'm implicitly saying the existence of the school, based on taxes (and very inefficient and liberally biased, too), is morally acceptable.

How have other people here in the same situation coped with that feeling? Or is there a better way of thinking about it?

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  • 3 weeks later...
The question of public schooling does matter, because like many others on this forum, I spend most of my time taking advantage of a public university. I do feel like I'm morally sanctioning the taxation of the people of the state I live in, and I do feel guilty about it in a sense, despite knowing that the money I save by going here is less than what has been lost by my family through taxes. By attending school here I feel that I'm implicitly saying the existence of the school, based on taxes (and very inefficient and liberally biased, too), is morally acceptable.

How have other people here in the same situation coped with that feeling? Or is there a better way of thinking about it?

The issue of moral sanction is only applicable in situations where there is no use of force. I am not morally sanctioning the government's extortion of my property to pay for public education by virtue of paying my income taxes no more than you are by virtue of attending a public university, so long as neither of us advocate the social welfare state and regard it as restitution (if you haven't already paid taxes, you will be forced to once you graduate).

I have two children, one of which is currently attending a reasonably good public school. Although I attended two private universities, I accepted government scholarships and loans to attend both (one wasn't really a scholarship since I agreed to serve four years in the military) and I'm presently enrolled in a public university. Knowing how much money I've already been forced to pay in taxes and since I'm certainly no advocate of the welfare state, I don't feel the slightest unearned guilt over this.

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I've taken some more time to think of this and haven't come to any good conclusions.

The issue of moral sanction is only applicable in situations where there is no use of force. I am not morally sanctioning the government's extortion of my property to pay for public education by virtue of paying my income taxes no more than you are by virtue of attending a public university, so long as neither of us advocate the social welfare state and regard it as restitution (if you haven't already paid taxes, you will be forced to once you graduate).

See, those two examples are different because you must pay your income taxes, but I choose to go to a public university. Your statement that once force is initiated, morality is thrown out the window, is correct; perhaps that applies to this case; but I feel that it may be more complex.

I definitely feel guilty walking around a public university every day, going to classes there and living there, and condemning the institution in my mind as immoral. And I'm sure if I ever publicly state my opinion that the university has no right to exist, the first thing that will come out of someone's mouth is "How can you say that when you go here?" I have no good answer right now (since I feel the answer you gave may be incomplete). Of course my family has far more than paid my way in taxes, but I still have these feelings, because I still chose to go there.

Any help, anyone?

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Everything we buy and rent removes money from our income. One of the first things I did when I became sole supporter of my kids was to work with the Jarvis Proposition to put limits on our property taxes in California. This was the famous Prop. 13 that ended up keeping many people with the ability to keep their homes. In looking over the tax forms that would allow my State, County and City able to keep the roads, schools and other emergency services possible. In many cases we got our money's worth but in the schools within Los Angeles County, I felt our taxes were wasted on Administration costs instead of academics.

I felt that t he most important times for a child were those years between 2 and 12. It was important for parents to spend time reading to their 2 year olds to prepare them for wanting to read when they had the ability. I dumped the television and spent our evenings reading to the kids. When they got older I would read and have them illustrate with their crayons what I was reading. It trained their brains to listen to the words. By the time they were ready for school they had a wonderful vocabulary and a well-trained memory. I interviewed many public schools in my area and found little interest in academics and a lot of social training instead. I located a good private school that continued to build interests in reading, writing and self expression. I continued the reading at home just because we all enjoyed it. As the kids got older and our home was filled with their friends, they too wanted a story from one of our books. I had created a monster and figured the kids would out grow this after dinner arrangement. I created kids as addicted to books as I am.

By the time my kids were out of school and looking for college, I was running out of money. I could not afford Stanford or USC and looked at the University of California. We're talking real money here and even with the kids working, it was too much. So U of C it was and it was a good move. It was by no means free but it was affordable.

For years we tried to get a legal tax deduction for the tuitition paid to private schools but it was always thrown back that every tax payer was responsible for the education of the American kids....even when it was failing....

Until we start electing representatives in our state and federal legislatures we will always be at the mercy of the users of our system instead of the developers of our superior programs. I saw the results of the dumbing down of our American kids in public school and the final insult was how they voted. We found that half the American voters leaned towards socialism where they would always have a safety net no matter where they were or what they did. They did not even have to stay in school as welfare would take care of them. The other 50% simply voted as their Ministers wanted and we got President Bush as our Commander in Chief. The sad part is that both of these voting systems represented only 1/3 of the people. Something has turned off the American public from voting at all. Apathy? Skepticism? Ignorance?

Maybe the best system in academics for our kids is public schools enhanced with the parents turning off the television and having either a reading session or taking on the subjects ignored by the public schools. To keep kids in public with nothing else added is a disaster.

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I definitely feel guilty walking around a public university every day, going to classes there and living there, and condemning the institution in my mind as immoral. And I'm sure if I ever publicly state my opinion that the university has no right to exist, the first thing that will come out of someone's mouth is "How can you say that when you go here?"
First I suggest that you not make the error of saying that the university has no right to exist; that is pretty much like saying that Sally Smith, a welfare recipient, has no right to exist. The focus should be on the fact that the government has no right to tax us, and that the government should not tax us. And, to go further, the government should stop giving money away and then using the fact that they're given away our money as justification for taking more of our money. If a university cannot survive except by receiving stolen tax money, then the university would rightfully wither away, in a free society.

If you want to live a completely pure, unblemished life where you have nothing to do with anything that had do do with tax money, then you can't leave your house, since the roads were built using tax money. Don't drink the water since almost certainly the pipes were laid with tax money, and don't turn on the tax-payer supported electric lights. The groceries that you eat were, of course, transported on taxpayer-supported roads, some (most?) of the the food was inspected for safety by taxpayer-financed government programs, and huge amount of the actual food comes from taxpayer-subsidized farms. You get the picture: the government's intrusion into the private sphere is ubiquitous, to the point that there are virtually no choices when it comes to living a life that is free of the influence of government coersive largesse.

If there is a reasonable choice for you between going to a taxpayer-supported school versus one that receives no money from taxation (I think that Bob Jones University may be the only one of that type in the country), it's not irrational to let the morality of taxation guide your choice. But avoidance of tax-tinged goods and services is simply impossible, unless you head off for the woods of Labrador and never deal with humans again.

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If there is a reasonable choice for you between going to a taxpayer-supported school versus one that receives no money from taxation (I think that Bob Jones University may be the only one of that type in the country), it's not irrational to let the morality of taxation guide your choice. But avoidance of tax-tinged goods and services is simply impossible, unless you head off for the woods of Labrador and never deal with humans again.

I don't have any choice about most of the things you mentioned (like using water from pipes laid down by tax money). It would be silly to advocate going to live on an island to avoid government servies. Likewise, Sandy didn't have any good choice about where to send her kids to college - she could only afford public universities.

But I could have easily chosen to go to a private university that is not tax-supported. I could have paid for it. It wouldn't have been worth the extra money given the option of getting a near-free education supported by taxpayers, which is why I chose not to. But I could have.

It is interesting that my motivation for going to a public university was specifically because I'd rather have taxpayers pay for my education than pay for myself. On the other hand, it would seem wasteful to pay for a private university when one could go to a public university for almost nothing and get the same quality education.

If there is a reasonable choice for you between going to a taxpayer-supported school versus one that receives no money from taxation (I think that Bob Jones University may be the only one of that type in the country)...

Well, there are lots of top-notch universities that are almost entirely privately funded. At least, unless I'm missing something. So I don't quite understand you here.

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Well, there are lots of top-notch universities that are almost entirely privately funded. At least, unless I'm missing something. So I don't quite understand you here.
I don't know which ones you mean. Perhaps you're not aware of the extent of government support of universities, or perhaps I'm unaware of this bunch of universites that don't receive government money.
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I don't know which ones you mean. Perhaps you're not aware of the extent of government support of universities, or perhaps I'm unaware of this bunch of universites that don't receive government money.

Well, I wasn't able just now to ascertain just how much funding private colleges in my state are getting, and from which governments. I could with a further effort, but I think it's fair to assume that top-notch private schools here cost $35k more than any of the 16 universities in the statewide system because they're not receiving any state funding. The state wouldn't be funding private universities when there's not really enough to go around to all the public universities already. Of course the private universities receive federal research funding (sometimes to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars), but I'd be surprised if they get federal funding for anything else. And I'd bet some of the smaller private universities don't get very much federal funding, even for research, since they don't do that much. Let me know if you think any of these assumptions are probably wrong, since I don't have any figures to back them up, but I'm pretty certain they're good assumptions.

So my point is, from what I can tell, the difference between tuition at a public university, rather than a private one, is that it's paid for by state taxpayers, rather than by oneself. That seems like a pretty concretely immoral situation that I could have chosen to avoid.

I'd imagine most public university professor salaries are also paid for by state taxpayers - a few are endowed - but I doubt the federal government pays for that kind of thing at all.

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So my point is, from what I can tell, the difference between tuition at a public university, rather than a private one, is that it's paid for by state taxpayers, rather than by oneself. That seems like a pretty concretely immoral situation that I could have chosen to avoid.
What would you say about public K-12 schools? Given that private alternatives are available, would you consider attending public K-12 schools to be immoral too?
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What would you say about public K-12 schools? Given that private alternatives are available, would you consider attending public K-12 schools to be immoral too?

Thinking about this made me realize that my going to a public university doesn't actually taxpayers anything extra. The school is selective enough so that only 20% or something of people actually get in, so somebody else would be in my place anyway. I completely pay for housing and food; the only thing I'm not paying as much for as I otherwise would is the actual degree and that actual time with professors, which I think is almost a marginal cost. Having one extra person in the class doesn't really matter.

I think the same situation applies to k-12 public schooling.

So, my concerns about having an education at the expense of taxpayers seems kind of null. Plus, as I've said, I'm sure my parents have paid more in taxes than the education would cost anyway.

But there is still the question of moral sanction. I feel that I may be sanctioning forced taxation by going to a public university - implicitly giving my consent. I think the same would apply to public schools, although for some reasons my feelings about that aren't as strong.. probably because (1) when i went to public high school it was my parents' choice as much as mine and (2) private high schools were much less of an option than private universites are in my area.

So what do people think about moral sanction here? I wish I had a copy of the Ayn Rand Lexicon available right now (I have VOS handy but I don't know that she treats the topic there.)

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Thinking about this made me realize that my going to a public university doesn't actually taxpayers anything extra. The school is selective enough so that only 20% or something of people actually get in, so somebody else would be in my place anyway. I completely pay for housing and food; the only thing I'm not paying as much for as I otherwise would is the actual degree and that actual time with professors, which I think is almost a marginal cost. Having one extra person in the class doesn't really matter.

I think the same situation applies to k-12 public schooling.

So, my concerns about having an education at the expense of taxpayers seems kind of null. Plus, as I've said, I'm sure my parents have paid more in taxes than the education would cost anyway.

But there is still the question of moral sanction. I feel that I may be sanctioning forced taxation by going to a public university - implicitly giving my consent. I think the same would apply to public schools, although for some reasons my feelings about that aren't as strong.. probably because (1) when i went to public high school it was my parents' choice as much as mine and (2) private high schools were much less of an option than private universites are in my area.

So what do people think about moral sanction here? I wish I had a copy of the Ayn Rand Lexicon available right now (I have VOS handy but I don't know that she treats the topic there.)

I think the issue of consent here would really only be relevant if everyone stopped giving their consent. If you as an individual stopped giving your consent, and everyone else continued on as normal, nothing would change. Your choice to give your consent or not has 0 effect on the governments decision to keep taxing and subsidizing education.

And objectivist morality is not based on "if everyone does this, something desirable would occur, therefore you should do it." That is Kant. Likewise, I think it would be reasonable to say that objectivism doesn't support the negative of that statement: "if everyone stops doing something, something desirable would occur, therefore you should do it." Objectivist morality is based on what would happen if you did something, not if everyone did it.

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  • 1 month later...

I ride the publicly funded city bus system in Los Angeles, but it's not immoral on my part. Metro's government funding and basic monopoly on routes / bus stops prevents private competitors that I would otherwise happily ride. I probably pay less than I would if riding a private bus system (thanks to California tax payers), but I have to put up with rabble-rousers who smell like urine and refuse to pay fare. Boycotting Metro would do nothing because they don't rely on my business to survive.

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The question of public schooling does matter, because like many others on this forum, I spend most of my time taking advantage of a public university. I do feel like I'm morally sanctioning the taxation of the people of the state I live in, and I do feel guilty about it in a sense, despite knowing that the money I save by going here is less than what has been lost by my family through taxes. By attending school here I feel that I'm implicitly saying the existence of the school, based on taxes (and very inefficient and liberally biased, too), is morally acceptable.

How have other people here in the same situation coped with that feeling? Or is there a better way of thinking about it?

Perhaps this is grounds for larger debate, but I always took a different approach to these sorts of issues.

You're morally opposed to taxation as a means of forcibly taking money from people in order to fund things like your public university. However, I , as a tax payer, would GLADLY pay for young people to attend university in order to improve their minds and chances of becoming contributors to a stronger, smarter work force. In the long run, I benefit from those people being more intelligent and more productive. It's not an issue of feeling guilty about people not having the same opportunities as me. I treat it like a purchase... Like I'd purchase anything to make my life more comfortable, secure or happy.

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However, I , as a tax payer, would GLADLY pay for young people to attend university in order to improve their minds and chances of becoming contributors to a stronger, smarter work force.
That is an admirable sentiment. Do you contribute voluntarily to some university of your choice, to their scholarship program, or perhaps you contribute directly and voluntarily to some college-attending youth to allow him to pay his tuition?
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It's not an issue of feeling guilty about people not having the same opportunities as me. I treat it like a purchase... Like I'd purchase anything to make my life more comfortable, secure or happy.

Would you purchase a highly inefficient product with a higher price tag? Only if forced. If you liken taxation for public universities to a purchase, that's the kind of purchase you're making.

Anyway, I don't feel guilty about other people not having the same opportunities as me. What I am concerned about is the morality of attending an institution whose existence I believe is immoral.

EDIT: Whose method of fuding I believe is immoral.

Edited by BrassDragon
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Besides, the government couldn't care less whether you would gladly pay. They hold a gun to your head and say, "you will pay, like it or not!" Or more often, "you will pay, and you'd better like it, or else!"

I go to a public law school, on a merit scholarship and federally guaranteed loans. I don't feel guilty. I'm getting what I'm owed, and what my mother is owed, from having paid such exorbitant taxes over the years. Just imagining the amount I've paid in sales tax to this state makes me nauseous. Perhaps I'll try to get funding from the university to bring in some ARI speakers to lecture on the evils of tax-funded education.

-Q

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A belated retort.

I could with a further effort, but I think it's fair to assume that top-notch private schools here cost $35k more than any of the 16 universities in the statewide system because they're not receiving any state funding.
That's actually a bad comparison. If you want top-notch, you pay top dollar. So what you should do is compare comparables. It seems that Duke tuition is around $34K (same with Yale). Compare that to $11K at another private school, Guilford College (who?), and UNC $3500 in-state, $18K out of state, or U. Michigan where in-state is I think $9K and out of state is $27K (OSU is marginally cheaper for in-state and closer to $10K cheaper for out of state). It is fair to say that state subsidy makes college cheaper, but let's not overstate the extent of the subsidy. Quality matters (no comments about quality at OSU vs Michigan).

My main point about the inevitability of government underwriting is the fact that there are possibly no universities in the US which do not receive direct or indirect tax money which is essential to their continued existence. The "public universities" receive a per-student enrollment-based subsidy not given to private universities; but all universities receive any and all other forms of financial aid, in the form of grants and subsidized loans. Government grants are given all of the time for generic education, for example I could write a grant proposal to the NSF requesting a million dollars to subsidize a teaching lab, or to run a program in some kind of science education ("Gravity for Idiots"), whatever. About $800 million annually goes for the direct education subsidy of NSF alone (and over $4 billion for research). Then there's $38 billion (with a "b") in annual yes I said annual grants from the Department of Education, and there is no requirement that you be a tax-supported university to get a place at that trough. Under the "one drop" theory, you can't find a moral university (I'm not sure if Bob Jones U has really refused to take any tax-derived money, but that was an old rumor I had heard).

So my point is, from what I can tell, the difference between tuition at a public university, rather than a private one, is that it's paid for by state taxpayers, rather than by oneself.
Tuition charges are not the same as proportion of operating costs. Operating expenses include immoral costs, such as the fact that by federal law, the university has to hire sign language interpreters for deaf students, Braille transcribers for the blind, and tutors for the stupid. This stuff is bloody expensive, and has some relationship to tuition costs. In a moral society, with no ADA obligations or any of that other nonsense imposed on a university, where by law we are not allowed to run efficiently, it's possible that the state tuition subsidy could go by the wayside.

Now then, the final point that you seem to not have responded to or commented on is the problem of statutory limitations on tuition (and maybe that's because I didn't make this point totally clear before, so I'm not criticizing, I'm just saying). Do you know why it is that state universities charge so much less for in-state students than private universities? Because the state legislature restricts tuition -- it limits the amount of tuition hikes, by law. Lemme tell you, we do really want to pull our financial weight, but the damn legislature makes it impossible to pass the costs on to the customer. Instead, the universities are forced by law to run at a loss which the state then half-way covers. So in the realm of immorality, let us not forget that the government immorally uses force to prohibit universities from raising tuition to a market-based level.

I'd imagine most public university professor salaries are also paid for by state taxpayers - a few are endowed - but I doubt the federal government pays for that kind of thing at all.
No, that's not how it works. To the best of my knowledge, no public university professor gets his salary paid by the taxpayer. It is paid by the university, and where the university gets its budget from... well, I have tried to get the fine-grained details, and lemme tell you, it is a well-kept secret. Suffice it to say that there is just a general operating budget. About 22% of that budget is the state subsidy. Compare that to sales taxes, state and federal income taxes: I'll happily take that kind of cut in pay in exchange for a tax-free income.

So now to reiterate, the university is not what's immoral. Taxation is immoral; government-imposed restrictions of pricing (tuition) is what's immoral; government-imposed requirements on teaching the alternatively-enabled and hiring the useless is what's immoral.

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That is an admirable sentiment. Do you contribute voluntarily to some university of your choice, to their scholarship program, or perhaps you contribute directly and voluntarily to some college-attending youth to allow him to pay his tuition?

I see where you're going with it, but I don't operate on that track. The amount of my tax dollars that go towards the funding of public education is so minimal I can't believe that it's even an issue.

I have no problem in contributing to the education of any number of people at any number of places because in the long run, I know it benefits me. And that's not coming from a happy, tree-hugging, save the planet place....I don't have a place like that.

Would you purchase a highly inefficient product with a higher price tag? Only if forced. If you liken taxation for public universities to a purchase, that's the kind of purchase you're making.

Anyway, I don't feel guilty about other people not having the same opportunities as me. What I am concerned about is the morality of attending an institution whose existence I believe is immoral.

EDIT: Whose method of fuding I believe is immoral.

I'm curious to know why you liken "a highly inefficient product with a higher price tag" to attending public university. If you can explain that rationale, I'd gladly respond to it...but the bottom line is, why are you attending if it's keeping you up nights?

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I see where you're going with it, but I don't operate on that track. The amount of my tax dollars that go towards the funding of public education is so minimal I can't believe that it's even an issue.
That is, you personally just don't care how much they take away from you in taxes. Well, I do, very strongly. Could we then strike a deal, where you give me the amount of money that I am involuntarily coerced into paying for education? I accept many forms of payment.

This is why I encourage you, and anyone else like you, to voluntarily contribute to the university of your choice. Some people may decide that they would prefer to contribute to medical benefits for the indigent. Whatever. In a free society, every man has the right to give money away according to their values. What they do not have a right to do is say "Because I don't care about the obscene taxes that I am forced to pay under pain of death, nobody can care, and therefore everybody should pay up."

My question was very simply, do you actually translate your professed beliefs into action? If not, why not? I can't check up on you, so I have to rely on your basic decency to say "Well, no, I don't actually translate my belief in the overwhelming value of mass education into the act of giving away my money". My claim is that people do not really believe that giving money away for educating others (strangers, in particular) is a good thing, and that this is just a socially popular type position that can be taken for no cost. I would be more impressed if there were a lot of private donations from the little guy, where people voluntarily, of their own free will and without any coercion, gave that amount of money to their local university, UNCF, or whatever other educational charity there is out there. Having no problem with being taxed is kind of cheap, because it's almost as inevitable as death.

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I'm curious to know why you liken "a highly inefficient product with a higher price tag" to attending public university. If you can explain that rationale, I'd gladly respond to it...but the bottom line is, why are you attending if it's keeping you up nights?

Highly inefficient because public universities let in worse students for the sake of diversity, "equalizing" the "economically underprivileged," etc. It would be a greater benefit to you if public universities educated the best people all the time, because that would translate into better goods, services, and technological gains. Furthermore, as DavidOdden mentioned in a post I read, what good does someone majoring in sociology (for example) do you?

A higher price tag because you have to pay for people to attend public universities, while you don't have to pay if they attend private universities.

And by the way, it's not keeping me up at night.

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A higher price tag because you have to pay for people to attend public universities, while you don't have to pay if they attend private universities.

Just a small comment. I suspect that taxes that go towards public universities are independent of how many students enrolled (until there is a change in state legislation.) A public university is not exactly run like a business. So if a state resident elects not to enroll at the public university, any funds that may have been allocated for him will just be diverted elsewhere and will surely not go back to the tax payers.

It would be more accurate to say in either case (state residents attend the public university system or seek formal education elsewhere), you pay.

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