In considering any problem, and in particular that of federal aid to education, one’s convictions must be based on principle rather than on expediency. Such convictions are especially needed in this day when the national government is encroaching in areas that historically and legally have belonged to the states or to private citizens. While I write as president of a Christian college, my argument against federal aid for Christian education is based on broad principles that apply to all private higher education, secular as well as religious, and also to primary and secondary education, both public and private.
“Federal aid” is a political euphemism for funds taken in taxes from the people and, after an appreciable diminution through the multiplicity of departments, returned to the states and various agencies. Aid is not new wealth; it is our money, handled and directed by government officials for purposes determined by themselves.
Our discussion of federal aid to education does not include the service academies, ROTC, the distribution of surplus property, and student aid programs such as the GI Bill and the loan programs established by the National Defense Acts of 1958. By the same token, government research projects are not included in the concept of federal aid to education. Federal support of research projects constitutes the government’s purchasing the abilities and facilities of the universities to do research for the fewest dollars possible. (Subsidy of scientific research is, however, an illusory “aid” to education, because of its diversionary effect upon research and scholarship and because of its tendency to draw able teacher-scholars into government research projects.)
Educational costs are mounting, but is federal “aid” the best way to meet those needs? The easy way is often the wrong way. We need more and better educational opportunities for the rising generation; but are they to be supplied at any cost?
The case for federal subsidy to education is predicated on two chief assumptions: (1) A centrally planned society is the best for all the people, and (2) the colleges cannot meet the rising costs and other demands upon them. These assumptions are contrary to fact. We have never believed that the government knows the best interest of its people better than the citizens themselves, nor that bureaucratic planners are more intelligent than the people themselves. The American government was established with a “division of powers” between the federal and state governments and the citizens. Furthermore, federal responsibility for education was discussed in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when a national university was proposed and was rejected as being outside the province of the national government. At that time education was considered to be the responsibility of the states and their citizens; the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 required new states formed beyond the Appalachians to set aside public lands for public education. And even then there were private colleges in that area.
Colleges And Continuity
In meeting expenses and balancing budgets, the colleges have been far more successful than the federal government. Since the founding of Harvard in 1636, American colleges have had the responsibility of providing for their own needs. For more than three centuries they have come through periods of financial panic and prosperity, through war and peace, and today are continuing steadily on their course. It is late in the day for the national government to think that it can better provide for higher education than the people themselves.
I suggest six main considerations against federal aid to higher education:
1. It is unnecessary, despite the enthusiastic advocacy of politicians and some educators. The American people as individuals and through help from foundations, business, and industry are providing increasingly for higher education on the basis of merit. Lloyd Morey, president emeritus and former comptroller of the University of Illinois, observed:
No adequate case can be made for additional nationwide appropriations by Congress for education at any level on a broad scale for any purpose. There may be a few areas in which local resources are sufficiently behind the general average and local educational conditions sufficiently in arrears to warrant temporary and selective outside assistance.… Such aid may be warranted from the federal government. To make these few situations the excuse for general federal grants to all states is both financial and educational folly.
There is a rising tide of opposition to federal intervention, as shown by the stand the National School Boards Association and many local Parent-Teachers Associations have taken. The colleges can help themselves by economies carefully considered and courageously undertaken. They should continue their studies in the efficient and effective operation of each institution, in the use of facilities, in extension of the school day and the school week, and in curtailment of the curriculum.
2. A subsidy is an unwarranted assumption that money is the answer to quality education. A study by Harold Orlans on “The Effects of Federal Programs on Higher Education: A Study of Thirty-six Universities and Colleges” (Brookings Institution) showed from standardized tests that the quality of undergraduate students is highest at liberal arts colleges. There followed in diminishing order of quality private universities receiving large federal grants, private universities receiving less federal money, public universities with large federal funds, and public universities with lesser federal amounts. A similar sequence was found to apply to graduate students. Thus it appears that federal aid to education does not buy scholars any more than foreign aid programs buy friends abroad.
The Brookings report, declaring that “quality must come first,” observes: “Even at the most eminent institutions, there is constant danger that intellectual standards will deteriorate from the too-ready availability of too much money. The danger will be greater at lesser institutions if programs are established solely to hand out dollars on the basis of a mechanical formula.”
3. Federal subsidy involves inevitable standardization. The department that dispenses federal funds for education will establish the kind and quality of education subsidized. For many years diversity of educational philosophy and practice have marked higher education in its independence of outside control and dependence upon the merit of its own program for support. In reporting to a congressional committee, President John A. Howard of Rockford College declared:
At the present time the variety of sources of funds for colleges and universities reinforces the diversity of educational programs and educational philosophies among the various institutions: one college now attracts funds because of the religious nature of its programs, another because of its freedom from religious influences; one for its conservative views, another for its liberalism.… As the various colleges turn more and more to a single source of revenue—the federal government—the differences that set one college apart from the next will inevitably be reduced.
Authoritarian control of education requires standardization and raises Jefferson’s uncomfortable question: “Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched?”
4. Subsidization means inevitable control of education, a prospect of particular concern to the Christian college. Such control is stoutly denied by politicians and bureaucrats, and also by some educators blinded by their wish for more federal aid. Again the Brookings report: “The danger of federal control should not be dismissed as a myth designed simply to serve the interests of local and sectional forces. It is and will remain a continuing danger to the independence of academic institutions which must be guarded against more vigilantly as the role of the federal government in higher education grows.” When questioned on this point at a conference in Chicago, President Nathan Pusey of Harvard said: “It seems obvious that, over a period of years, in their power to grant or withhold funds, the agencies of government are likely to have much to say about the direction research is to follow. Many educational leaders continue to believe this kind of decision had best be left to the colleges and universities.”
A Federal Duty
It is the responsibility of the government to set up controls for the expenditure of public monies. In a decision in 1942 (Wickard vs. Filburn), the Supreme Court stated that “it is hardly a lack of due process for government to regulate that which it subsidizes.” What the national government finances it must of necessity control. This is required by the Constitution and recognized by every honest lawmaker and thoughtful citizen. One should weigh therefore the observation made by Congressman Watkins Abbitt (D-Va.) in his statement against federal aid to education: “There is here demonstrated an all-out effort to federalize the schools and nationalize the lives of American citizens.… History teaches us that when the central authority gets control of the education of our youth, it is a long step toward a totalitarian government and dictatorship.… Federal Aid means Federal Control.”
5. Subsidization will demand secularization of education—again a cause for concern to the Christian college. Separation of church and state according to the First Amendment to the Constitution is intrinsic in the American way of life. Over the years, and especially in the last few years, the courts have reinforced this. To expend federal funds for higher education will plunge the nation headlong into the problem of whether public money can be used to promote religion. The alternatives will be religion and no federal money, and federal money and no religion.
Each independent college and university is free to establish its own spiritual standards and practices according to its own persuasion, either religious or irreligious. However, to accept federal aid is in time to be required to become irreligious and secular.
6. Federal subsidization, especially long-range scholarship aid, will mean a shift in responsibility for the education of the children from parents and students themselves, from colleges and their constituencies, to the national government. No one knows better than educators the financial needs of students, the sacrifices made by parents, the strenuous efforts at self-help made by young people. Educators do not favor making the acquisition of education an unduly onerous and practically impossible task for those of limited means.
Yet the family is the unit of human life established by the Almighty in his wise provision for the welfare of mankind. The family that faces its responsibilities for its children, that perpetuates the affection and confidence between parents and children, that prays together and works together and sacrifices together, will find that its children can be educated. The effort to do so will help unite the family. There are numerous forces in our land acting against the integrity and strength of the family. These are to be resisted for the best interests of the American people and the nation as a whole. The philosophy of the welfare state includes detaching children from the family unit by making provision for them beyond what the family itself can provide. The ultimate purpose of socialism is to make all citizens dependent upon the national government. Federal aid to education is part of the battle for the minds and souls of Americans.
For our Christian schools in particular the question of federal encroachment into the field of education finally resolves itself into the choice of aid or independence, subsidy or standardization and secularization, support from the government or continued dependence on God through his faithful stewards. The passage of Higher Education Facilities Act (now Public Law 88–204) in December, 1963, accentuates the need for Christian colleges to take a stand. If the principle is wrong, so is the practice. The alternatives are the hard and good way of progress based on the merit of our programs and the quality of our graduates, and the apparently easy way of giving in to mammon. It may even be necessary at times to walk in the rags of self-determination of our own plans and programs under God rather than to be clothed in the dubious riches of dependence on federal support.
V. Raymond Edman is president of Wheaton College, Illinois. A former professor of political science at Wheaton, he holds the Ph.D. degree from Clark University, the LL.D. from Houghton College, and the D.D. from Taylor University. He has written fourteen books.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more