Economics 101 & Theology 101

Asking Tough Questions about Stewardship and Education

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On January 9, 2015, President Obama announced a proposal subsidizing two years of community college education for students who attend at least half the time and maintain a minimum of a 2.5 GPA.

If all states participate, the proposal claims that as many as nine million students may be affected. Students attending community college full-time could receive as much as $3,800 a year to cover tuition.

This news has been greeted with varying emphatic responses and deservedly so. Affordable, quality education is in high demand, and it merits careful thought as we go about trying to meet this need.

The Changing Nature of Education

As a professor, I have a front row seat in the debate.

In the last century, it has become increasingly important for some to attain at least a college degree as many jobs require greater depth of study that is often best gained in the classroom.

Recently, however, common wisdom is shifting as even individuals holding a bachelor’s degree or higher have experienced underemployment or unemployment while holding significant levels of debt. I’ve seen many of my students struggle with this.

Alternative forms of education will become more popular as individuals seek more cost effective options suiting their particular vocational needs and callings.

This being the case, many are looking to the government to fund what they consider a human right – education. If we were to look at this in terms of stewardship, how should we make decisions regarding the nature of and funding for this education?

Principles of Stewardship

We often look at the parable of the talents to guide our thinking about stewardship.

As I read through the passage more recently, I was reminded of something striking about the master’s attitude toward his servants upon his return.

Rather than praising each of them for saving the coins he gave them, his praise mirrored the return each received from the original investment.

We must be careful not to confuse this investment with charity. Charity is given without expectation of return, while an investment necessitates accountability and proof that the investment was a wise one.

The master praises those who make the best of his gifts to them. This distinction underlies the discussion about education.

Stewardship and Education

What does this policy actually incentivize? As Reason magazine points out, “it’s not the students being subsidized, it’s the college.”

Rather than the student facing financial ramifications for not meeting or exceeding standards, schools experience the temptation to bend standards to retain students simply to receive the funding.

  • Yet, as Reason’s article notes, even in an era of grade inflation, community colleges don’t have a very good graduation rate.
  • Furthermore, students who are held to a higher standard of financial accountability are likely to do better. Having a clear sense of the connection between the investment and the expected result is essential to success.
  • “Free community college” is a misnomer. As any good economist will quip, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Someone—in this case, taxpayers—is footing the bill. When the money is handed to the school or student by way of another entity, the actual donor doesn’t have any way of tracking the effect of his or her money.
  • Even tax dollars are limited, and we need to be wise with how we allocate them. As demonstrated when California made inexpensive community college available, the system was unable to match the high demand for classes. As many as 470,000 students were stuck on waiting lists in 2012, and many students were cut to meet the already exceeded budget.

Rather than endorsing a method that could further entrench our nation in debt and cause the value of a degree to decrease, how should we approach this issue of higher education?

We often talk about the specific nature calling, and it’s helpful to recall here that each individual is gifted in and inspired by different things. No two students will follow exactly the same path, and it would be a mistake to assume that a single policy can address needs as different as the individuals receiving the education.

Instead of trying to solve the dilemma of education with charity, let’s look at it as an investment in the students and hold them – and ourselves – to a higher standard.

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