There are personal benefits to those who have the good fortune to get some college education. For example, those with college education earn more than those without any college education: in the US, this benefit has been estimated to be $9,967 in annual earnings for each year of college!
But are there other -- non-market -- benefits that college graduates enjoy, but do not translate directly into dollars and cents? In addition, are there benefits to the society at large? If there are, how big are they? Can these benefits all be quantified?
Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed has a really fascinating interview of Walter W. McMahon, author of Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education . There are many interesting things in that interview, so you really ought to read all of it.
Here's excerpt on the societal benefits, that would make a strong case for (at least partial) public funding of college education:
Most social benefits beyond earnings occur as human capital formed during college is used by the graduate in the community throughout his or her life cycle in ways that improve the community. These include larger contributions than high school graduates at each income level of their time and money to sustaining democratic and human rights institutions such as civic and charitable agencies. More college graduates also contributes to political stability, reduced crime, lower public welfare costs, greater social capital, an increased flow of new ideas, and an improved quality of the environment for all. These are benefits to "others" that go beyond the private satisfactions received by the graduate because firms can be more productive when there is a good environment and because ‘others’ include future generations.
There is research that measures each of these benefits. But it requires a thoughtful and balanced look. Some of the earnings that graduates enjoy, for example, are partly the result of the education of prior generations. So graduates receive spill over benefits from the education of ‘others’ in prior generations, but they also give some of each benefit listed above to ‘others’ in future generations.