Phi Beta Cons

Culture

Further Thoughts on Free Tuition at Harvard

In a post here late last week, my colleague Roger Clegg drew our attention to a recent New York Times article that discussed an effort to compel Harvard to use part of its $37 billion endowment to make Harvard tuition free for all students.

This isn’t an effort by just one person acting alone, but a position advocated by a slate of candidates who are standing for election to Harvard’s Board of Overseers. (Hmm, I’m surprised that politically incorrect name hasn’t been changed yet). Their thinking is that this would eliminate the controversy over affirmative action, and that students of all income levels could compete for admission based just on their own personal merits.

I have long thought that it was unseemly for any non-profit to hoard assets the way Harvard seems to do. Certainly, $37 billion can help support a lot of good initiatives. Maybe Joe Biden would like some help with his cancer research ”moon shot,” for example.

What bothers me is that those arguing for free Harvard tuition are of a piece with American society’s expectations today — free stuff for everybody. Newspaper publishers, musicians, writers and all manner of others are beset by the expectation among the public that the content and value they create should be available for free. To everybody. It just should. Might as well add universities to the list, starting with Harvard since few would sympathize with Harvard.

But it seems to me that, if something is free, it connotes to the user a lack of value, and is treated accordingly. I know from my teaching experience that the most diligent and motivated students were the ones for whom college tuition payments did not come easy — they worked a lot of hours to help afford tuition, some with full-time jobs. They well understood the value of what they were receiving, because they themselves placed that value on it. It seems to me that if Harvard students have no skin in the game, they will be far less diligent than the working students, and will draw much less benefit from their educational experience.

Vic Brown — Vic Brown had a thirty-year career in the chemical industry with FMC Corporation, where he held senior positions and worked internationally in sales, marketing, manufacturing, information technology and procurement.

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