A friend of mine, responding to a Planet Money story on proposed free college tuition in the US, tweeted his disapproval:

As one who worked for every cent of a college degree — $0 aid, $0 parents — this new proposal for free tuition makes me livid. Are American students ALREADY getting enough help from their government? 90% of my classmates were not paying their own way. and that 10% who were there on their own dime….Top of the class.

These comments helped crystallize some thoughts I’ve been processing for a long time, so I thought I’d bang them out here. This isn’t a personal debate at this point; my intent isn’t to “call out” any one person, but rather to use his comment to illustrate a perspective I used to hold, and why I don’t hold it anymore.

Part of this perspective (call it “earn your keep” for short) is the idea that if someone pays they will perform. And the more they pay towards their own personal improvement, the better they will perform. Maybe more importantly, the less they have to pay due to any type of assistance, the worse they will tend to perform.1 After all, they’re not invested; they have no skin in the game.

There can be (and often are) good intentions behind “earn your keep” thinking. Many people say it comes from mean or self-serving motives, but when I held to this line I genuinely don’t think I did so out of spite or selfishness. I’m very sure that’s not what motivates my friend either. None of us wants policies that would tend to undermine people’s ability to reach their true potential.

Still, under scrutiny it falls apart in several ways.

  1. Its predicted outcomes don’t match actual results. For example, countries exist where college tuition is 100% government-subsidized. Under the above “earn your keep” thinking, we would predict that students produced by colleges in those countries would be outperformed by U.S. students; in fact the opposite is true2. As another example, no one in America pays for their own high school education. Yet among American high school students, whether public, private, or homeschooled, you find students who excel, and those who fail — even though none of them are paying out of pocket.3

  2. It’s an argument that obtains against any measure that might lower the bar to opportunity, including private charity or cost-cutting. Suppose my friend’s alma mater found a way to cut tuition costs by 50% without subsidies. The felt effect on the paying student would be indistinguishable from a government-subsidized cut. Applied consistently, “earn your keep” thinking would lead us to oppose all cost-cutting measures on the grounds that they would hurt student performance relative to those in earlier years who had to pay more. “Earn your keep” is also an argument in favor of making all high school students pay for classes out of their own earnings.

  3. Finally, there’s the issue of one’s frame of reference being too small and oversimplified. My friend’s baseline reference for “reasonable” college tuition costs is “the hours I worked and the dollars I paid” — a price which was almost certainly subsidized by some combination of tax dollars and private donations. Further, suppose someone who had worked harder and paid much more for college came along and sneered at him. What logical grounds could he have for refusing the justness of this sneer? Why is his price the “correct” one? And again, there’s the issue of high school: the universally accepted baseline “reasonable” student cost for high school, even among conservatives, is $0. Why is this?

Whether people receive something for free or have to work for it, they tend to believe that the particular method by which they got it was the “correct” one. If they had to pay a steep price (such as for a house or their first car), then they earned it in a way that made them value it “properly”. If it came to them for little or no cost (such as firefighters showing up at their burning house, or the food they ate for the first fifteen years of their life) then that was simply what they were owed from others’ civic or moral duty. These distinctions are completely arbitrary, and we would do well to avoid including them in our policy decisions.

There’s a second aspect to the thinking we’re discussing: the sentiment that if you can’t or don’t pay, then you don’t deserve. You haven’t worked hard enough. You haven’t sacrificed enough. My friend is “livid” that many people might get for “free” something that he had to work hard for. Part of it might have to do with relative personal comparisons as discussed above. But the other part surely has to do with concerns about expending money on undeserving people who will probably waste it.

When we talk about “to whom should we give X” (as opposed to “who will be most effectively helped by X”), we’re talking about moral frameworks and value systems. Who deserves what kind of assistance? Should desert even be a factor when giving assistance? Should need be a factor?

Jesus did not have anything too encouraging to say to the “deserving”4. He gave the best perspective on the question of how we ought to include or exclude this or that person for assistance. What he says is: your heavenly father makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good — and you had really better imitate his example. God, we may say, materially assists everyone, even knowing many will abuse those gifts.

As a society, America already does this in a lot of ways (though very poorly in many cases), for which I am thankful. We provide public defenders for all accused, knowing that many of the accused will be guilty. We provide education for all children, knowing that many will slack off in class. The (somewhat counter-intuitive) result is a better society. But on the whole, a Christian should feel obligated to support these kinds of measures even if that were not always the case — because God does.

  1. There’s a bit more nuance to it for conservatives. When pressed, they will say that not all assistance is bad, but that assistance provided through the civil authority is somehow different from all other kinds of assistance and is uniquely counter-productive. Whether this is a real distinction is a separate discussion, something I may talk about in a further note or a separate post. But I would start by asking, what are all the different types of assistance a government may provide, and how does one decide which of those are good and which are bad? 

  2. In studies of education outcomes among OECD countries — whether in college graduation rates or literacy scores among college graduates — the USA consistently rates at or below the OECD average, and behind many other countries where college is free to students. The US falls behind these countries in mathematics as well (1, 2) though these results concern high school students — which, again, pay $0 for their education no matter which country they are in. 

  3. The common counter to this is that student performance in public schools is inferior to that of private schools. Even if we concede this point, though, it’s irrelevant. We’re talking about the motivational effect of costs on students (not parents), and the cost to the high school student is still pretty much $0 no matter what type of school they attend. Furthermore, US student performance in private schools is still worse than student performance in countries that only have public education. 

  4. “And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”Matthew ch. 20