All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1991

Should Government Subsidize Higher Education?

James L. Payne has taught political science at Yale, Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, and Texas A&M. He is now an independent scholar living in Sandpoint, Idaho.

When it comes to agricultural subsidies, scholars line up to criticize. They point out that these government funds cause overproduction and waste, that they stifle innovation, and that they are unfair, since lower-income taxpayers are forced to contribute to wealthier individuals. But on the subject of subsidies to academia, scholars are noticeably silent. They are content with government-operated state universities, and seldom say a word against the many Federal programs that directly or indirectly fund colleges, including student loans, construction grants, work-study programs, and research grants.

This silence is unfortunate, since many of the current problems in American higher education trace to its subsidized character, Those who seek to revitalize academic life can’t afford to ignore this issue. It turns out that the arguments against agricultural subsidies apply in equal or greater force to higher education!

Overproduction and waste in higher education take several forms. Because higher education is priced well below cost, many more individuals fill university places than can profit from the training. One result is an oversupply of trained personnel in many fields: Ph.D.’s in English who work as clerk-typists or B.A. graduates in forestry who drive lumber trucks. The waste is also intellectual: many students who sit in the underpriced college classrooms lack the capability and motivation to absorb the material. They are frustrated and unfulfilled, and their resistance drags down the quality of education for the others.

Another form of waste is the pursuit of irrelevance. Insulated from the discipline of the marketplace in their taxpayer-supported fiefdoms, many academics pursue silly scholastic dogmas. For example, Marxism thrives among university teachers. Professors of literature embrace inane fads in interpretation that lead them to wrest the life from the books they teach.

A broader consequence of subsidizing higher education is that of preserving an historical anachronism. The four-year liberal arts college emerged several hundred years ago as an educational form to serve a tiny, New England elite. Had this institution not been nurtured by government, the landscape of higher education would almost certainly have evolved differently.

In a system of voluntary, unsubsidized higher education, the four-year college probably would have been replaced by a myriad of schools and programs, all competing to provide the kind of education that Americans wanted and could benefit from. To a large extent, this education would be oriented toward specific technical skills. At the same time; however, the liberal arts could thrive. Instead of being imprisoned in government-subsidized academic “disciplines,” subjects such as literature, history, politics, and philosophy could be opened to both teachers and students whose motivation would more often be curiosity and concern. With government out of the picture, who knows what kinds of exciting variations and innovations would flourish!

Regulations and Red Tape

In agriculture, another cost of subsidies has been to subject farmers to governmental regulations and red tape. The subsidies in higher education have entailed the same burden. Take, for example, affirmative action, the Federal requirement—let’s not mince words—that colleges must hire less qualified members of governmentally approved social groups, including women, blacks, and Hispanics. The direct result of this Federal regulation, of course, is less competent faculty members. Its indirect effect on the caliber of administrators may be even more harmful. To be a college dean or president these days, you pretty much have to go along with the premise of affirmative action, which is that social goals can be more important than academic standards. Since uncompromising champions of intellectual excellence cannot accept this premise, these stalwarts tend to be excluded from a leadership role in higher education today.

A final argument against government subsidies for higher education concerns their effect on the thinking of academics. When government pays the salaries, and supports the students, and builds the science labs, and funds the summer research trips to Paris, scholars are encouraged not to bite the hand that feeds them. For one thing, administrative controls are at work. The scholar who makes a forthright criticism of a spending program that is at all close to his field will often be reprimanded by his superiors. Thus, physicists are deterred from questioning super-colliders, educational psychologists are deterred from criticizing public education, and so on.

There is an even more insidious control, however. The really telling objections to government spending programs involve universal principles that underlie all programs. The state-subsidized scholar is reluctant to unearth these ideas, for they bring into question his livelihood and that of his colleagues. For example, one criticism of government subsidies is that they involve the use of physical force, since force and the threat of force are the basis of the tax system. A profound analysis of subsidies, then, would have to ask whether the use of force is a moral approach to social problem-solving. A scholar who already has a government paycheck in his hand would rather not face this issue—and is, of course, biased if he does address it.

Thus we see that government subsidies of higher education may involve far worse evils than similar payments to farmers. In agriculture, a subsidy merely distorts production. In higher education, it distorts the thinking of the entire intellectual class on one of the critical issues of our era, the proper role of government in the life of a people.

Ideas On Liberty

Subsidy Leads to Control

It is hardly lack of due process for the government to regulate that which it subsidizes.—United States Supreme Court

Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111, p. 131, October 1942