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I'm curious what kind of arguments one could give to justify to someone without a college education that they would have to pay for someone else's education that they themselves never received.

With majors where it's expected that people will be more capable of producing value than without such as with STEM majors the argument is that long term, they will be able to pay more taxes allowing the original taxpayer to retire more comfortably.

But that's less of an argument when its about a major that has no guarantee of a high paying position as a result of it. In fact you are losing out on tax revenue that they could have paid if they spent the same time working.

So how would one convince someone to pay for a less profitable major for someone else?

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  • Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to debate the question matter. If you would like to answer, please post a real answer. If you would like to discuss, please use the chat function. Please try to limit these comments to suggesting improvements to the question.
    – JJJ
    Dec 31 '20 at 6:21
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    Why is this restricted to STEM? I can think of many unprofitable STEM fields and many profitable nonSTEM one, even if profitability was somehow a goal of education Jan 1 at 1:45
  • I think that you need to redefine your question and decide what you want to include as "useful" and "non-useful" majors. E.g. teachers, lawyers, historians, anthropologists, musicians, dance, sculptors. Jan 2 at 1:37

12 Answers 12

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After one generation, you would have lots of engineers and lawyers and few, if any, teachers.

After two generations, you would have neither engineers nor teachers.

Our culture is more than just engineering. It might be possible to ignore that on the short term, but not for long. So one could say that we're systematically underpaying kindergarten teachers and art historians, and you want to add insult to injury by defunding their departments?


Follow-Up: There have been debates in the comments and also some actual comments about me mixing teachers and art historians. The former are seen as useful by some commenters in producing the next generation of STEM graduates, the latter are seen as useless. But I stand by my belief that culture is more than just engineering. To clarify, I firmly believe that any society which abandons non-applied science will be diminished on the long run.

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    If there would really become a shortage of teachers, wouldn't that result in their pay rising to the point that their education would become financially profitable (if it isn't already)? This answer seems to criticize a straw man (defunding non-STEM education for all time), neglecting the dynamic aspect of price signals. Yes, we certainly need some number of teachers, but that doesn't rule out that we could currently have an excess, and that the financial evaluation could be a signal to tell us when we have an optimal number.
    – nanoman
    Dec 31 '20 at 13:06
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    @nanoman The simple supply and demand argument can only work if "production" is immediate. Since it takes several years to study for a degree, raising the wages will not magically create new teachers out of nothing. Also much more common reactions to a lack of teachers instead consist of increasing the number of students per class, the teaching hours per teacher or simply lowering the standards for new teachers. All of which are cheaper on the public budget and will only have consequences years later, when the people deciding these are no longer in office.
    – mlk
    Dec 31 '20 at 13:38
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    @pluckedkiwi We can discuss philosophy for a long time, but this does not change the fact that historically this has been the government's response and the long term effect in some sectors are sadly apparent now (e.g. see the shortage of doctors in Italy now, wholly unrelated to the current pandemic although of course it makes it more evident). Unless you give people (e.g. politicians) strong incentives to pay attention to long term consequences the reality is that they don't, capable or not. Dec 31 '20 at 14:15
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    @pluckedkiwi That's not fair on politicians - why do you expect the ample people to do any better? There are many "correct" policy decisions, but they can't all be implemented at the same time. The politician's job is to synthesise opinions from their experts, choose a balance of outcomes, and finally sell it (in a democracy) to the voters. Of course they aren't correct every time, but there's no way that any other "labelled" group would be either. An expert could possibly "get it right" for their field, but how is that balanced with other needs?
    – awjlogan
    Dec 31 '20 at 16:32
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    Many engineers are perfectly capable of teaching, and not just STEM subjects. Indeed, a good many people in STEM fields are also fairly well educated in various Liberal Arts fields as well, though (at least from my personal observation) the reverse is seldom true.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 31 '20 at 18:12
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Everyone benefits from an educated society.

People with an education, even in non STEM fields are more productive: Just ask Lawyers, Teachers, Advertisers, Designers, Business executives, HR professionals, and all the hundreds of other degree level jobs that exist. A degree, any degree, halves your chance of being unemployed.

People with an education are healthier, commit fewer crimes, and have higher levels of civic involvement. The individual benefits from being in a society where people are educated.

Indeed it is hard to find an indicator of personal or societal fulfilment that education doesn't enhance.

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    Note that "employed" doesn't equal "productive". Perhaps the non-degree-having people would've been just as productive as the degree-having people, if they'd been hired.
    – user253751
    Dec 30 '20 at 21:51
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    This is a list of basic fallacies. Go back only a few decades, and none of those groups got degrees. Instead they gained professional qualifications in their area of work, which directly benefited them. It's not true that people doing these jobs are any more capable or productive than before.
    – Graham
    Dec 30 '20 at 22:42
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    ... As for unemployment, this confuses cause and effect. Entry to higher education requires more academic-oriented intelligence. The degree and employment are both effects of intelligence/ability; employment is not an effect of having a degree. And all the positive attributes you list again are linked to employment, not to education.
    – Graham
    Dec 30 '20 at 22:49
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    I think this is a fallacy. Are educated people generally better, or do better people generally get an education? Is it the education that makes people healthier, keeps them from crime, etc., or is it the fact that they have more money? Arguably, the people on the bottom would be better if they kept their money instead of spending it on education taxes which primarily benefit the people on the top.
    – Truth
    Dec 31 '20 at 1:59
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    @NotThatGuy - But that's the premise of the question. Any burden placed on a person with no degree to pay for someone else to get a degree which will not be profitable is (in my estimation) an unreasonable one.
    – Truth
    Dec 31 '20 at 2:14
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I'll take a slightly different tack: it is a bad idea for a government to pick winners and losers. What seems a "worthy" degree at one point may turn out not be be so later on.

I come from a STEM background. My freshman year, we had a large graduating class of Chemical Engineers. That's because, 4 years earlier, the market for them had been red-hot. By then however, there had been a downturn in the chemicals industry and there was a glut of incoming graduates. About 25% of the Chem. E. grads, from a prestigious school, had a job offer in their last semester.

You may want to tweak taxes and financing, for example make it easy to borrow money and make repayment conditional on taxable income reaching certain thresholds. You may also want to promote STEM careers, especially to people who'd not usually pursue them. Possibly even set up more advantageous scholarships. Regulate universities so that they are not diploma mills (Basket Weaving 101). Promote technical 2-year colleges.

But, in a free market, the government should not try to control the supply of graduates overmuch. An educated workforce, even in "undesirable" fields, has a lot more earning power and flexibility than people with just high school diplomas.

Let employers' wages drive the signals that tell students which careers to pursue. Plus, "soft" diplomas will typically be cheaper to supply than "hard" ones.

Last, one possibility to address the concern of "frivolous" diplomas is to make people have "skin in the game". Rather than fully free college education, make it extremely easy to finance at low interest, with repayments tied to minimal earning thresholds. That essentially allows anyone afford secondary degrees, but people are more likely to take into account expected earnings if they have to pay it back. If they never make enough money, so be it.

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    This same argument can be used for not subsidizing college at all, though, so I'm not sure that it accomplishes the OP's purpose.
    – reirab
    Dec 31 '20 at 23:05
  • @reirab the OPs question was, at least partially, about choosing which diplomas to subsidize or not, from the POV of a non-college graduate. my answer is not about subsidizing in general, rather the false premise of a government favoring particular degrees for subsidies. Jan 1 at 1:21
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    My (major R1) uni president once answered a very similar question. Her example was Middle Eastern studies, which was dying in the early 2000s but then interest spiked after 9/11. But if they had shut the dept down in 95, no one would be there to answer that need. Jan 1 at 1:50
  • (or some similar example) Jan 1 at 1:50
  • This doesn't seem to answer the question?
    – gerrit
    Jan 1 at 11:41
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Here are some:

  • Golden Rule: I'd like my tuition to be paid even if I don't know whether it's profitable, and in return, I'd pay my share of someone else's tuition that I don't know will be profitable.
  • Innovation means exploring every possibility, not just the ones that some rich CEO thinks are profitable. I think you don't have to explain why the most innovative societies are best in the long term.
  • Cultural value doesn't mirror financial value. We pour money into the Large Hadron Collider (but not too much!) because we'd like to unravel the mysteries of the universe, not because it's profitable.
  • A more economic argument: if someone would be otherwise unemployed, then the country loses nothing by paying them to work on some project with public utility. They're going to get food and housing one way or another - someone ends up paying for them, no matter what - so why not get some research in exchange? If you didn't pay for unemployed people in taxes, you'd pay for them in increased crime, for example.
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Many sound arguments have been made why such a policy would be wise if it were in fact true, but in reality the premise of the question is largely mistaken.

While there's much discussion around the fraction of the tax burden which should be carried by the wealthiest taxpayers vs those merely a bit above median income, the clear reality is that the overwhelming fraction of the overall tax burden is carried by those in the upper 50% of income distribution, and only a tiny part is carried by those in the lower 50%.

Traditionally there have been non-degree jobs such as skilled trades (often in industries with strong unions) which could result in a solidly middle-class income, quite possibly well exceeding the national median income at the peak of a career. However, these have been rapidly vanishing over the past two generations - a comfortable family existence supported by a single non-degree career is now exceedingly rare.

In recent decades, there are fewer and fewer workers without college degrees whose incomes put them above median income and into a tax bracket where they are asked to contribute even as much as (never mind more than) a per-capita share of national expenditures. Even cutting government expenditures back drastically and removing anything remotely arguable as a "subsidy" would not really reduce taxes in the lower half of the income distribution by much. While lower income taxpayers are still very much taxpayers, in the sense of federal taxes they are not really subsidizing anyone else, but rather only paying a well below per-capita share towards what even the most barebones government would have to expend on the fact of having citizens and territory. (And that's as it should be - we have tax brackets for a reason).

A small and shrinking number of exceptions do exist, in the form of those who either from entrepreneurial efforts, or by holding surviving union style or skilled trade jobs do end up paying a higher than average share of taxes without a college degree. But they are rarities; and most would not recommend that their own children enter the workforce without a degree, because they see through their own experience how uncertain such a path has become.

In reality, the cost of higher education subsidies is overwhelmingly carried by medium to upper income workers with college degrees, and this is becoming more and more true every year.

(Things like local property taxes are payed by almost everyone - either directly or as a pass through from rent; but with rare exceptions of city-owned colleges these fund only primary/secondary education. Subsidies of higher education are mostly federal, and to a much smaller degree state. In the latter case there may be a limited input from flat - which is to say effectively regressive - sales taxes)

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    While you are generally correct, you still acknowledge that there is a minority of people who don't have degrees but who, through their efforts and not their papers, have risen to the top. Those people are the subject of the original query. How do you justify to those people - people who didn't get an education and who did the hard work of getting ahead - that they should pay for someone else to get an education that won't even be profitable?
    – Truth
    Dec 31 '20 at 2:06
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    No. The question is stated in terms of impression and belief, it makes no attempt to limit its scope to the shrinking number of non-degree taxpayers who are actually making a net contribution to public expenses (the distinction being one of the classic misdirections of politics...). But note also that in acknowledging that a small and shrinking number of non-degree taxpayers actually contributing towards subsidized higher education exist, I specifically pointed out how most would not want that path for their own children, as they've seen firsthand how uncertain non-degree careers are. Dec 31 '20 at 2:36
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    @Truth I was responding to you, not to the question. You asked what one would say to the minority who has excelled/succeeded despite not having been educated through upper education. The answer is survivorship bias. “Degrees that do no good” is highly subjective. There are several answers on this question that demonstrate the benefits of education in general. Having presented those to the “unbeliever”, survivorship bias is a way to help them explain that they are exceptions, not the rule, of uneducated people.
    – ARich
    Dec 31 '20 at 3:42
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    @Truth Wrong again, my answer addressed all taxpayers without degrees, only a small number of whom fall in the category you are speaking of. Your mistake is in forgetting that low income taxpayers are still very much taxpayers - they simply cannot be in any reasonable sense said to be subsidizing anyone else. Only a small fraction of taxpayers without degrees earn enough to be meaningfully subsidizing others. Dec 31 '20 at 4:04
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    @Truth The entire lower half of the income distribution together pays only about 4% of the total taxes collected. Erase any practical set of programs you like from the budget, and the government is still spending more per capita on base necessities than it is collecting from these taxpayers. But they are still taxpayers. And that is the fundamental error of the question - in seeking to justify something to someone who actually isn't paying for it at all, but has been sold the idea that it's something being taken from them. Dec 31 '20 at 4:08
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Because some of them pay off enough to make the rest worth the risk

There aren't that many places who'd want an art historian. However we do have galleries and auction houses who need them. We have some artists who make a fair living, and we have some superstars who make millions. There's a decent amount of money in the art industry. By Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) we need to train 10x as many artists as could actually turn a living, and then those who are good enough can sustain this industry.

Of course there's a balance to be struck. But so long as course fees for all the artists in school are less than taxes paid by artists and architects, and by related industries such as building which rely on them, there's a rational financial reason to keep funding them.

The same is true in STEM as well, of course. Theoretical physics seems pretty obscure, but there are parts of it which directly contribute to engineering and new innovations. So we train lots of physicists so that some of them will be the pioneers of future technology - but again, only as many as is reasonable.

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    I think this would justify funding only-as-many-as-necessary. So, if 10 out of 100 artists can succeed, only allow federal funds for the 10 best applicants. Those 10 aren't relevant to this question. The question is "how do we justify funding unprofitable majors"? In your example, the 10% of artists are profitable, so their funding is presumptively justified.
    – Truth
    Dec 31 '20 at 2:10
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    @Truth the problem is that you don't always know up-front which ones will be the successful ones. Dec 31 '20 at 2:37
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    @PaŭloEbermann - Agreed. But if you give out a test and only accept the ones who pass it, those are the ones most likely to succeed. It might be a good idea to fund 11% if you expect 10% to succeed, or maybe have a sliding scale of funding based on performance.
    – Truth
    Dec 31 '20 at 3:37
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    @Truth You have a test capable of predicting which artists are most likely to succeed!?
    – user141592
    Dec 31 '20 at 10:47
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    @Truth You're missing a major factor here. The point is that you may have 10,000 applicants for a course with 100 spaces. As you say, the university then sets entry requirements which (on average) gets the 10,000 applicants down to 100 possibles. Of those 100 possibles you can't tell which will be the successful ones, but you've improved the odds to the point where the successful 10 will more than pay for the unsuccessful 90; and if you don't fund all 100 then you wouldn't get anything from the successful 10.
    – Graham
    Dec 31 '20 at 12:02
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Most STEM majors don’t use their specialisms in productive employment. Some do, but most don’t. And yet, the university experience of studying something in great detail and exercising insight, creativity, and skill, all under the pressure of high-stakes exams while networking with aspirational peers, turns out to be a valuable and transferable skill in its own right.

So in some sense it might not matter what you study as long as you study it well. You’ll be a more valuable and productive and enriched member of society at the end of it.

Additionally, smart people are valuable and it pays to have them engaged and empowered in society, regardless of their specific interests. If you only educate math-passion smart people and exclude art-passion smart people, you’ll have strictly fewer smart people overall participating in society.

Now of course smart people might well do just fine without a university education, or acquire one themselves through non-university routes, but I think an argument could be made that the university system is a reasonably efficient way of inducting smart people into productive society and setting them on course to maximise their potential.

Citation: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/32379/11-771-stem-graduates-in-non-stem-jobs.pdf

Excerpt:

Within the workplace, few graduates interviewed used their specific degree subject knowledge a great deal (even those in STEM Specialist work), although their degree subject was perceived as vitally important in gaining such jobs. On the other hand, almost all the graduates – irrespective of employment sector – used the general and broader skills learned while doing a STEM degree to a much greater extent.

(Although more importantly the paper supports the notion that STEM=employment is an oversimplification).

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    Most STEM majors, really? I could accept that for humanities majors. But STEM? (The closest part of STEM to this would be mathematics)
    – user253751
    Dec 31 '20 at 20:10
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    [citation needed] for the claim in the opening paragraph regarding most STEM majors not using their specialty education in productive employment. I have seen no statistics that agree with this assertion, but rather quite the contrary.
    – reirab
    Dec 31 '20 at 23:22
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+500

You don't.

A lot of the other answers have been suggested by other people here, with varying degrees of success, but noone's addressed the elephant in the room. You don't try to convince them to fund these degrees, because you don't need to fund them to begin with. When the government is funding the education sector, the government will fund the sections of it that it believes will improve the country's well-being, and that means that unprofitable and unneeded degrees like Fine Arts and English will have their funding cut so that it can be redirected to degrees that are tied to functions that the government values, such as STEM, Education, Nursing, Law, and similar degrees that are likely to lead to employment.

The fact of the matter is that any government has a finite amount of resources, and one of the primary jobs for them is resource allocation, and areas that the government deems less important will receive less resources. If you want to see this in action in the real world, look at how the Australian government cut funding for Arts degrees to give it to (primarily) STEM degrees.

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    STEM degrees can also be a lot more expensive than arts degrees (with the exception of mathematics).
    – gerrit
    Jan 3 at 12:35
  • If there is a lack of available funds, then by all means allocate them to STEM. But if the government is able to raise enough funds to pay for both STEM and arts, the question is: why should they pay for arts, instead of returning them to the taxpayer?
    – user253751
    May 2 at 12:07
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The OP seems to be under the impression that universities care about students employment when really they don't. If you want a job then you go to a trade-school. A trade has an almost guarantee of a job. If you want an education then you go to university.

A university trains a countries politicians, the success of a religion or worldview in a country depends greatly on the success at the academy. The attitude of the academy, has a trickle-down effect on the attitudes of its people. The pursuit of knowledge, a better understanding of the world we live in. You really cannot put a financial metric on a education.

Yes, there are degrees which people just do to gain access to a profession, but generally these have been in the minority. Understanding our world better is a noble pursuit regardless of the employment opportunities. You seem to have a very narrow-minded view of a education, something which is as common as it is unfortunate.

I have been working basically for the past 10 years as a music teacher. My job basically was finding a final solution to the heathen problem. Parents with a bit of money really don't want to raise barbarians, for nearly 10 years I have been helping them with that.

Am I now to be told that my job was unsuccessful because I did not make a scientist salary? Yes, I know the pay for teachers is poor, I don't need a physicist to tell me that. I'm perfectly able to gauge the earning potential of my profession myself.

That is why I have been teaching myself web-development for the last couple of years, but still that has not taken away from my 100% distinction record or in any way taken away from the teaching I did.

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    I mean if you have to pay for something in taxes, its not unreasonable to expect something in return Dec 31 '20 at 10:49
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    "If you want a job then you go to a trade-school. A trade has an almost guarantee of a job. If you want an education then you go to university." The Australian government disagrees. To quote an official statement by the Australian Education Minister: "It’s common sense. If Australia needs more educators, more health professionals and more engineers then we should incentivise students to pursue those careers."
    – nick012000
    Dec 31 '20 at 13:55
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    @nick012000 infrastructure has been languishing a bit in most Western countries...
    – user253751
    Dec 31 '20 at 20:11
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There are answers about how all these unprofitable educations are actually profitable in a way. They're really answering the question by implicitly reframing as being about justifying funding education that is profitable, which makes an answer obvious...

There is no objective/rational justification to pay for something objectively unprofitable. However, not all decisions revolve around tangible, objective, or easily measurable things.

So the justification is that in the eyes of people doing the decisions for funding, these things are profitable for various reasons, which may come down to subjective personal preferences.

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Quite a lot of graduates from non-STEM majors (teaching, health professionals, social workers etc.) end up in jobs where their value for the society is not reflected in their salaries, because their services are guaranteed by the state (provision of "free" education, medical and social care). If you as a citizen want to keep these services on a certain level of quality, you want those people to get a university degree.

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    Seems weird to not classify medical professionals as STEM.
    – reirab
    Dec 31 '20 at 23:41
  • @o.m. ok, corrected to "health professionals"
    – krenkz
    Jan 1 at 12:52
-2

I do not personally believe it is justified for the government to subsidise such degrees, but those who do seem to justify it in the following ways:

  • A more educated society indirectly benefits us all (supposedly, a more well-educated society will have less crime, elect better politicians, care more about global warming, justice system reforms...)
  • A too narrow focus on STEM is not good, we need a holistic set of skills in society
  • STEM is a hype, if we allow free market to allocate degrees we will end up with a lack of historians/philosophers in 10-20 years

One claim that is not factually wrong (just that two wrongs do not make a right) is to point out to the person you are convincing that they probably get a lot of benefits other people do not, for example their kids get educated while even people without kids pay for education, public roads are also funded by people that do not own cars or travel a lot, etc

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