Academics have historically balked  when confronted with suggestions that the education system is a business and should be treated as such. They speculate that placing a monetary value on an entity with a deep, intellectual purpose diminishes the overall significance of learning. They claim that you cannot quantify the positive benefits of a degree.
But this is not the case. Education, particularly higher education, is a business, and one of the few left in this country that guarantees a positive return. To call education a business isn’t to undermine its importance to our country and citizens — it provides the proof that our higher education systems should be a top priority, if not the top priority, for government spending.
Quite simply, the future of our economy depends on well-educated workers. More than 59 percent of jobs today require some postsecondary education, yet these degrees are becoming increasingly difficult to attain. We must evaluate higher education based on the return institutions generate for the country both in terms of absolute dollars and competitiveness.
Public higher education depends on state and federal budget allocations. We have a choice as to how we distribute these public funds. By continually prioritizing Social Security, health care, and defense spending over education, the government is indirectly hindering an increase of college graduates that our economy so desperately needs. By 2018, 63 percent of jobs will require a college degree, but we are likely to fall 3 million graduates short of what the market demands, according to a recent study .
Today, the federal government spends approximately $30 billion annually subsidizing enrollment in higher education institutions, with most of the money spent on financial aid, and roughly 8 percent going to grants to institutions. According to a Cato Institute Study , the federal government also provides approximately $30 billion to U.S. universities to fund research projects. While these are certainly hefty investments, combined it means the government only contributes 14 percent of the total dollars — $420 billion — that flow into higher education institutions.
Higher education is the best investment we can make for our country’s future. But are we doing enough to support educational institutions and students? Higher education provides annuity-like returns for 40 years — the working years of most graduates. Over the course of an average lifetime, a holder of a four-year-equivalent degree (the weighted average of associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, professional, and doctorate degrees) gives the government $471,000 in income, payroll, property, and sales tax revenue. You certainly can quantify the value of a degree: that’s more than twice what it would collect in lifetime taxes from a high school graduate lacking a college degree, according to a University of Maine study. 
In California, for instance, every dollar the state invests in higher education leads to a $3 net return on investment. The University of California System (UC) contributes more than $14 billion in California economic activity and more than $4 billion in tax revenues each year, not to mention the impact from UC-related spinoffs. Further, the California State System (CSU) ensures businesses get the trained workforce they require — CSUs graduate 45 percent of the state’s computer and electrical engineers. Despite this, the UC and CSU schools have seen a 28 percent decline in state support between fiscal years 2007-2008 and 2011-2012, according to a study done by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
Higher education graduates help fuel innovation that creates new jobs. Research universities contribute new technologies — from Internet search algorithms to genetic coding — and file thousands of patents annually. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of February 2009 provided some funds for higher education (mainly to prevent states from reallocating education dollars for other purposes). However, these funds are miniscule — less than a percent — in comparison to the total funding for research universities, according to the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board .
If the government should plateau on its investment in higher education, we’ve raised the risk level of our current investment. When endowments are down and state governments cut funding to state universities, tuition rates rise and the likelihood of students not graduating increases. According to the American Institutes for Research , students who started bachelor degree programs in the fall of 2002 but failed to graduate in six years cost the students approximately $3.8 billion in lost income in 2010 alone.
A recent Inside Higher Ed blog post discusses an interesting approach to lowering tuition costs while increasing the numbers of students able to enroll in universities and earn degrees, using a simple supply and demand model. Approaching the problem from an economic standpoint does not undermine the importance of receiving an education; it highlights its very necessity, and makes it more accessible.
As taxpayers, we need to be asking about our tax dollars’ return on investment. From 1987 to 2006, we doubled federal support for Medicaid in state budgets — increasing these funds from 10.2 percent to 21.5 percent — but decreased federal expenditures for higher education from 12.3 percent of state budgets to 10.4 percent, according to a University of California study .
We need to have a conversation about education similar to the national debate we had about the automotive and financial industries. We should not view education expenditures as discretionary dollars that we can increase and decrease at will, but rather as the most dependable, profitable, and ultimately, important investment our government can make.
Mehdi Maghsoodnia (@mmaghsoodnia) is CEO of Rafter, which provides software tools for cloud-based distribution of course materials. Rafter is also the parent company of textbook rental service Bookrenter.com.