Using Federal Subsidies To Fund Higher Education Is Not A Good Idea

Remarks prepared by Dr. John A. Howard, President of Rockford College, for delivery at the Illini Union Great Debate Forum Wednesday, April 3, 1963.

It is remarkable how swiftly history is moving in our time and how rapidly the tides of opinion can reverse themselves. Fourteen years ago the view which I represent in this discussion was so commonplace among educational executives that if this debate were held in 1949, I would have been generally regarded as the sound participant and my opponent, the screwball, instead of vice versa.

Let me refresh your memories on this matter. In 1949 the President of the Association of American Colleges was the Very Reverend Vincent Flynn, President of St. Thomas College in St. Paul. His views about Federal aid to education were certainly not equivocal.

“None of our institutions in America is perfect — our press, our radio, our stage, our democratic form of representative government; we wish them all improved, but not by any means whatever, regardless of the risks involved.”

“Least of all, in my opinion, do we wish our educational system improved by means inherently dangerous. Far better for it to struggle along with its imperfections, gradually improving as its constituents grow in wisdom, than to have it immediately raised to higher standards set by Federal authority. The ways of freedom are indeed often slower than the ways of despotism; but most Americans, I submit, still prefer freedom to despotism, however benevolent.”

Carleton College’s President Gould wrote in 1949:

“I miss no opportunity to reiterate my opposition to Federal aid to education. As a matter of fact, the more I talk about it and the more I think about it, the more serious does that threat become. It is almost stupefying that intelligent people cannot see what may happen if we continue to promote movements in that direction.”

Among many others whose opposition is on record are the Presidents of Stanford,Columbia, Brown, Northwestern, Grinnell and Beloit. Permit me to offer one other quotation.

“For more than a quarter of a century and especially during the last decade, education in the United States, like a ship caught ina powerful tide, has drifted ever farther into the dangerous waters of Federal control and domination.”

“This drift has continued at an accelerated rate during the war. Present signs indicate that unless it is sharply checked by an alert citizenry, it will continue even more rapidly after the war.”

“It is the deliberate and reasoned judgment of the two educational commissions who join in the appeal which this document makes to the people of the United States that the trend toward the Federalizing of education is one of the most dangerous on the current scene.”

This passage appears in a joint report issued in March, 1945 by the Problems and Policies Committee of the American Council on Education and the Educational Policies Committee of the National Education Association. You will recognize in these committees the policy bodies for the whole power structure of American education.

Today opinion is running so strongly in the other direction that these statements issued not so long ago by America’s educational statesmen sound strange to our ears. The questions we need to ask ourselves are, “Are we now so much wiser than they, or is it possible that our press toward Federal aid is misguided?” “Were the principles which directed their judgment faulty, or have they been actually proven by the Federalization that has already taken place in the intervening years?”

First, let us register on the extent to which the national government is currently engaged in education. A number of our most renowned universities receive the money for more than half of their operating budgets from Washington. To view the Federal pedagogue from another angle, this volume of almost eight hundred pages contains nothing but a brief description of each of the educational programs subsidized by Federal funds. The discussion of Federal aid is not a hypothetical one; we have but to examine the vast, complex network of existing programs in order to draw our conclusions. I shall not try to portray the problems of overlapping, inconsistency and confusion that have arisen in the existing Federal programs of education. I commend to you an article in the March issue of Nation’s Business on this subject. The source of the information is Mr. John F. Morse who has just completed a nine-month study of Federal educational programs as a special report for the Higher Education Sub-Committee of the House of Representatives.

For my part, I would be inclined to rejoice if all those allocated funds were not flowing smoothly out into education. Why? Recently I wrote to the President of a well-known university inviting him to join our effort to caution the public about the Federal subsidy of education. He responded that he believes Federal aid is not in the best interests of the nation or of the colleges and universities, but his own university is now so extensively committed to government programs that he cannot exercise his rights as a citizen on this issue without jeopardizing the institution he serves. How many other voices are now stilled by a similar involvement in Federal programs?

A dependence upon government money silences criticism and destroys political freedom. This is precisely the reason that the residents of the District of Columbia were not given the franchise. A person’s vote is not his own if his employer is the government. Project your thoughts a few years into the future when the Federal Government will be the largest single source of funds for all colleges. At that time won’t all academic personnel be inclined to vote for whichever party promises the largest additional subsidies, regardless of anything else the party stands for? I do not believe this is a chimera born of reactionary conservatism. It is a simple application of human nature, an observation on the natural laws of politics. It is a consideration worthy of your serious thought.

Let us assume that the problem of political captivity can somehow be induced to go away and look beyond it to the source of the dynamism and success of American education. I believe that the one factor which more than any other accounts for the vitality and creativity of our educational system, and therefore of our society, has been the independence and the individuality of each separate institution. As a professor or a department or a college has perceived a new problem or a new method of attacking an old problem there has been a local freedom to try out new methods, new curricula, new equipment and new facilities, limited only by the imagination and the resourcefulness and the depth of conviction and the financial means of the perceiver.

Every time the Federal Government embarks on an educational program, the Government must, by the nature of its responsibilities, make that program available to all who qualify. It must establish qualifying criteria and set certain guidelines for the expenditure of its funds. To argue the contrary is foolishness. However enlightened and however flexible these criteria and these guidelines, the initiative and the creativity of the individual professor or institution is diminished. A simple questioning of faculty members engaged in Federally subsidized programs will reveal that it is only a question of how much their flexibility and individuality have been circumscribed.

This is not an argument of Federal control in the usual, superficial sense of telling the teacher what to teach. It is a much more indirect and subtle, but nevertheless inexorable loss of freedom and creativity and diversity. This, I believe, is the spectre that has animated past opposition to Federalized education.

Now let us return to a chink in the armor of this argument. You will recall I suggested that the undertaking of educational innovations has been restricted only by human ability and financial resources. The latter, that is the money, is the entire nub of tonight’s discussion. It cannot be denied that a larger percentage of this nation’s capital must be invested in education in order for us to provide the level of knowledge and skills required in an increasingly technical and increasingly international world. The money must flow more generously into educational operations.

In the last analysis, the only justification for Federal aid to education, apart from a philosophical commitment to centralizing the services of society, the only justification is that the Federal Government is more generous in allocating money than are other sources. If you read carefully any of the exhortations to enact the Federal aid bills you will discover just two basic arguments: that only the Federal Government has enough money to do what must be done in education, or that we must depend on the Government to make decisions for all of us as to what needs to be done and how we should do it. I am unwilling to believe that the American people would forfeit to the slightest degree the local control of the educational system if they thought that was the objective of Federal aid legislation. We are therefore left with the sole argument of the ready availability of United States Treasury funds.

If it were generally recognized that easy money is the only possible reason for Federal aid to education, we could then weight sensibly and unemotionally what we must sacrifice to obtain this easy money. I have suggested only two areas where sacrifice is required, political freedom, and academic creativity and flexi­ bility. There are others equally important. However, I wish to move on to some suggestions for resolving the dilemna.

If the Congress deems it necessary by its action to channel money into education, there are ways of acccmplishing that purpose which appear to avoid the damage that accrues from direct Federal loans and grants. If it is desired to make sums of money available for construction, then a tax exanption could be granted to construction bonds for private institutions, similar to the exemption now enjoyed by municipal bonds. By this technique the college could decide whether the payout would be long term or short term and there would be no need for the Government to draw up specification restrictions on the buildings. This move would provide easy and uncontrolled access to construction funds.

If the Congress honestly wished to make it less difficult for students and their families to meet the costs of a college education, then a tax credit could be granted for money paid for college expenses. Or, to go the full way, if Congress honestly wanted to make large sums of money available to education, then it could grant a flat tax credit for any gift to any educational institution. Suppose the tax credit for educational gifts were enacted with a ceiling set at $300. If your Federal income tax was $450 you could send $300 to the University of Illinois or to Elgin Community College or to the city school board and send the balance of $150 to the Director of Internal Revenue. Such legislation would quickly fill educational coffers. It would leave it to the individual to decide what level and what kind of education most needs his money and the educational institution would be free to determine how it could best spend that money.

This proposal is a radical departure from current practice, but it should not be lightly cast aside. Recently I visited with members of Congress and officers of Health, Education and Welfare. The President’s education bill is given next to no chance of enactment. It will undoubtedly fail on the impasse of Church-State arguments, if it ever gets into the debate stage. We witnessed last year a frightening and profoundly damaging fragmentation of the various segments of education in the debate over Federal aid. The various controversies, college vs. secondary and elementary, Protestant vs. Catholic, Negro vs. white, public vs. private and religious vs. secular, reached such a pitch that they undermined the progress that had been made in the development of mutual trust and cooperation among these constituencies. There are indications that these battles will be resumed where they left off, if we persist in advancing what we now think of as Federal aid to education.

Ladies and gentlemen, the manner in which we meet the financial problems of education will fundamentally affect the quality and the character of our educational services in the years ahead. We should not disregard the uniform opposition to Federal aid voiced by our predecessors without weighing carefully their reasons in the light of current experience. I am convinced that their words of caution were well-founded, and that we must discover means other than Federal grants to support our schools and colleges.

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