by Anthony Hennen
In a November 8 article, the Chronicle asked a panel of experts (including CCAP director Richard Vedder) a central question: are too many students going to college? Most of the commentary focused on economic benefits of a college education and whether it’s financially solvent, but soon shifted to the moral obligations society has to support higher education.
“We have a moral obligation as a society to create the opportunity for as many students as possible to go to college if they are so motivated. We have a moral obligation to make the financial aspects of college attendance manageable and to ensure that students get the financial, academic, and social supports necessary for success,” according to Sandy Baum of the College Board.
Social scientist Charles Murray countered “we have a moral obligation to destroy the current role of the B.A. in American life. It has become an emblem of first-class citizenship for no good reason.”
“We have both a moral and a political obligation to ensure all students and their families access to affordable higher education,” said Daniel Yankelovich, founder of Viewpoint Learning Inc.
Moral obligations are fulfilled in a variety of ways; political obligations are only fulfilled by redistributing money from one group to another. Political means are overused and usually accompanied by unintended consequences. The rising cost of college has been exacerbated by government intervention.
Government assistance for higher education is defended on the grounds that it helps low-income students acquire an education they would not obtain otherwise. What is overlooked in the justification for government assistance, though, is that money is redistributed not only from wealthy families who can absorb the cost, but also from families who struggle financially to put their son or daughter through college.
A political obligation to further higher education should not fall on individuals and families already burdened by economic hardship; the obligation would tend to harm the very people in need of help. C.S. Lewis said in God in the Dock: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
This is, of course, not to say that believing society has a moral obligation to further higher education is harmful and cruel. We should evaluate the methods used to further higher education and jettison the methods hindering higher education growth and affordability. When moral obligations become law, the law takes on a subjective, and usually harmful, role. Opinions of moral obligations vary greatly; why should an individual’s opinion dictate another individual’s obligation (moral and financial) to society?