Would it come as a surprise to you if I told you we as Iowans are spending more to house people in prisons than we are to educate people in our colleges and universities? Or that it costs more taxpayer dollars to keep a 20-year-old in prison in Iowa than it does to educate a 20-year-old at one of our state universities?
If it sounds screwed up to you, friends, it is.
The cost to provide for prison inmates in Iowa averages nearly $32,000 a year per criminal, all paid for by your taxes. That's more than some families earn in Webster County. Not as much per day as we pay in expenses to state legislators in Des Moines, but close.
In 2012, the state paid less than $10,000 per year per student in the state universities.
In other words, kids, please, please stay in school. Because you're going to wind up costing us triple if you cook meth than if we teach you chemistry. And we're told chemistry pays better.
In many U.S. states, appropriations for higher education have foundered, while spending on prisons increases rapidly (Iowa's been a bit more stable).
According to various accounts, 25 to 40 percent of the prison population is made up of nonviolent people arrested for possession of drugs. We'll leave it up to you to decide if prison is a very effective addiction treatment device.
Here's a frightening stat if ever there was one: In the early 1980s the U.S. incarceration rate was 220 people per 100,000 population. It is now more than 740 per 100,000 - much more than tripled in a generation.
It isn't helping that college costs have become so high that it is again reaching the point where some frustrated young people and their families can no longer see hope for a four-year university education.
The answer from leaders and campuses has always been, just borrow more, more, more money.
But many teen students today are facing a daunting choice - forego an education and the earning potential that comes with it, or take on debt that will haunt them for decades (near $30,000 on average, and it is not unusual for young people starting careers in our area to do so with $100,000 or more hanging over their heads.)
Our politicians have been useless on the issue. Predictably, Democrats come up with expensive campaigns with trendy names, like the $1 billion "Race to the Top" competition among colleges to cut costs, which achieves nothing in terms of quality education. And just as predictably, Republicans say that colleges offering the best return for the money will rise to the top on their own and all will be magically fixed.
We're flying in the face of the world here. In many of the European countries, most of Scandinavia and parts of South America, college is free, education is a given.
Why? Because they know that universal access to learning is the greatest investment countries can make in their own future. Because they don't want their societies burdened by the crushing weight of welfare entitlement as ours is. Because they don't want aging parents going into retirement broke and unable to care for themselves because they have been financially drained by college tuition for their children. In the Nordic world, students often receive a monthly grant to cover living costs in addition to their free tuition.
Nothing is ever really free, of course. The cost comes from taxation. And I'm told that colleges in those countries tend to apply plenty of fees, so students in those countries may still have some debt coming out of school.
Not everyone needs to go to college to have a decent life, and not all who do go need a four-year or advanced degree. The vital thing, though, is that everyone capable of succeeding in college should feel they have the choice.
Without accessability to learning, the chasm of social inequity widens, and so does the frustration. An educated society will still have its criminals too, to be sure, but it tends to be a more stable, progressive society.
Why don't we spend more on higher education as a society? Because we choose to spend on weapons, welfare, and yes, prisons. And because the small percentage of super rich and their corporations own our high-level politicians, no real change is ensured, regardless of which party may be in power.
This is what it has come to in America. Young adults and their families forced into deep long-term debt if they want education, and preyed upon by a wave of for-profit, or fly-by-night and virtual "colleges" that we haven't had the guts to do much of anything about.
College shouldn't be free, in my opinion. If it was, it would not be appreciated. It shouldn't be an entitlement - but it shouldn't be impossible either. And the cost must be controlled so that young lives are not crippled by impossible debt just when they are getting started.
U.S. students now owe $1 trillion now in debt. And U.S. taxpayers owe the same $1 trillion to run prisons, which are filled mostly - 70 percent - with wasted young male lives. At least some of those lives that perhaps could have taken a different path with learning.
Where do we want our next generation - in class, or in a cell? A state and country that spend more on prisons than colleges is in real trouble.
Dana Larsen is editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune and a former staff writer at The Messenger.