August 9, 2023
Should College Be Free?
The funding of our nation’s colleges from the federal coffers has increased the cost of our college education, it has distracted colleges from their true mission, and has entangled colleges in the passing political fads of the federal government. NSA does not accept federal funds. We are discussing the problem with higher education institutions accepting federal funds.
In the end, despite the good things that programs like the GI Bill initially accomplished, the funding of our nation’s colleges from the federal coffers has increased the cost of our college education, has distracted colleges from their true mission, and has entangled colleges in the passing political fads of the federal government. And now we are hearing from our nation’s politicians that ideally, college education should not just be subsidized by the government, but that it should actually be completely funded by the federal government. College should be free.
Note that word “free.” What does it mean to be free? There are profound implications for how you answer this question. As an American, and particularly as a Christian, that word “free” has a profoundly deep meaning. It describes your independence, your ability to stand unbound by the chains of another. One thinks of the words offered by Revolutionary War General John Stark, “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.” The first half of that quote is memorialized as the gutsy motto on the New Hampshire license plate. Or perhaps you think of Christ’s words in the Gospel of John: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). To be free is, in this sense, a truly noble purpose. And to have a college that set you on this path, a college that taught you to live free in this deepest sense, that would be a profound blessing.
Note that word “free.” What does it mean to be free? There are profound implications for how you answer this question.
But there is another definition to the word free. It can simply mean that you may have the service without having to pay the normal charge, like when you get a free pizza. Of course, it goes without saying that nothing is truly free in this sense. Somebody, somewhere is still paying for that pizza. But for whatever reason, they are motivated to carry the cost and let you slip out the door without paying the bill. That’s a nice gesture when it comes from the overflow of an individual, generous heart. But it is a financial debacle when that free meal is instituted as a national policy and considered to be an inherent right of every eighteen year old.
Unfortunately, all the current conversations about the possibility of “free” college are using this second definition of free, rather than the first. College is being offered like a free pizza, a complimentary education served up piping hot by the federal government. But I want to argue that to the extent that we avail ourselves of this second kind of “free” we will lose that first, and far more profound kind of freedom. “With the shekels come the shackles.” You cannot take the money and expect to maintain ideological integrity. As federal funding increases, so does the federal government’s estimation of its own authority over the various elements of college life.
We may get a “free” college education. But, in the end, we will find that we have gotten what we paid for.