Do state colleges and state prisons really compete for money? Well, sort of. Emotions run high when considering this question, at least in part because college students are attractive and motivated and prisoners, in contrast, are rough and aggressive. Everyone wants his son to go to college; no one wants his son to go to jail. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone went to college and America had no prisons? Or, as Pat Wingert writes in Newsweek,

It may seem odd that state funding for college kids often competes with money for prisoners, but if you track spending in California over the past 30 years, you’ll see evidence of a long-standing tug of war between these two very different constituencies. Over much of the past decade, funding for corrections has gone steadily up, while spending on state colleges has tumbled. “The state seems to be saying we have more of a future in prisons than in universities,” University of California president Mark Yudof said in a recent speech.

Following months of protests by students, parents, and colleges, Schwarzenegger urged the California legislature to pass a constitutional amendment earlier this year that would require the state to spend more on college classrooms than prison cells. “What does it say about any state that focuses more on prison uniforms than on caps and gowns?” Schwarzenegger said, adding that “30 years ago, 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and 3 percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education. Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future.” The state’s priorities, he added, “have become out of whack.”

Now the trend to spend more on prisons and less on colleges is a very real one, and not just in California. But the “tug of war” phrase is a misleading metaphor. Colleges don’t brawl with prisons for money, anymore than they brawl with the state employees’ pension fund or the department of parks and recreation. State colleges and prisons don’t fight each other for resources; they fight the state.

As the Wingert article rightly points out, however, both of these expenditures have grown immensely in the past few decades. This leads some, like Schwarzenegger and Yudof, to conclude that their state should be spending more on state colleges than on prisons, because colleges are, you know, nicer.

In January Schwarzenegger proposed an amendment to his state’s constitution requiring California to spend at least 10 percent of its budget on higher education and less than 7 percent of the budget on prisons. Despite the fact that even the state’s accounting office called Schwarzenegger’s plan simplistic and bad this discussion seems not to go away.

This is not a prison blog, but the real problem here is that our prisons don’t work. Once someone spends two years in prison, he’s essentially part of the prison system for life. This is true even if someone enters the system for a nonviolent crime, for something like drugs. The cost of keeping someone is jail in California is about $52,000 a year. Most of this has to do with the fact that California’s prison guards are the highest-paid in the United States of America.

These things are very interesting and potentially worthy of improvement, but pitting colleges against prisons, even rhetorically, is trouble. It’s relatively easy for colleges to raise money independently, by simply enrolling richer students or forcing them into higher debt. Prisons don’t have that option. As long as the state keeps incarcerating people, it has to use state money to pay for that. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer