The Eclipse of the Independent University

A dramatic though little-realized national tragedy is taking place before our very eyes: the decline and fall of the independent university in America, including the Christian ones.

Although most independent institutions of higher learning have continued their existence and many have even grown in size because of our recent population explosion, there is a real and present danger to the Significant role that they are playing in the total cultural, democratic, scientific, religious and economic way of American life. The danger is evident not only in the recent direct take-over by states of several independent universities, such as the Universities of Buffalo, New York (11,000 students at the time of appropriation), Houston, Texas (12,000 students), and Kansas City, Missouri (3,500 students), to mention only three recent examples; but it is evident also and mainly in the rapid decline of the percentage of students attending independent colleges and universities.

In the early years of our nation’s history, all higher education was in private hands. Gradually, state and municipal governments stepped in, so that by 1900, 39% of all college students were attending state-controlled colleges or universities. During the next fifty years the decline in the percentage of students attending independent colleges and universities continued but was gradual, slipping 11%.1 But since the mid-century mark, there has been a dramatic drop in the percentage—with the result that in 1964 less than 37% of college students were in independent institutions. And the end of the slide is not in sight. By extrapolation the Fund for the Advancement of Education (established by the Ford Foundation) predicts that in 1985, if present conditions continue, state-controlled institutions will have 80% of the nation’s students in higher education (Letter to a College President, p. 17). It does not dare predict what the percentage will be after that, say in the year 2000. In Michigan, 82% of the college and university students are already enrolled in government-controlled institutions. Dr. Carroll V. Newson, former President of New York University, has estimated that “by 1975, perhaps not more than 4% of the post-secondary students of the country will be attending private institutions.”

This would be a national tragedy. As good and necessary as it is for the government to provide some university training, it would be detrimental to academic freedom if the government should obtain a virtual monopoly in higher education. Government ownership and control stifles academic freedom and diversity of thought. It does not allow a pursuit of knowledge from various philosophic postures. A Calvinistic, Barthian, Thomistic, or Jewish world-and-life view, for example, is forbidden. Only a neutralistic or secularistic approach is allowed. One source of America’s great strength and heritage has been its richly diversified educational system. Its economic, SCientific, political, religious, and cultural life has been immeasurably stimulated and enhanced because of the distinctiveness of its educational institutions, characterized by conservatism or liberalism, secularism or Cod-consciousness, Thomism or Lutheranism, conformity or dissent, and distinctive national cultures. Such pluralism has given an impetus to fresh and diverse answers to vital problems. It has often been from what seem the most unlikely institutions small ones with a distinctive, narrow tradition, perhaps that great ideas have sprung.

Yet, today, as never before in the history of our American culture, this heritage of diversified thought is in danger of being eclipsed by the monolithic structure of the humanistic secularism of the state schools. In these schools there cannot be full academic freedom—except for the secularist—to research and teach according to one’s most fundamental philosophic presuppositions. Regardless of the undoubtedly excellent reasons for the existence of governmental universities, research for truth in these institutions is one-sided, springing only from a secularist orthodoxy.

It is imperative to recognize the need for governmental colleges and universities. These may not be disparaged. To preserve its existence, maintain its democratic form of government, compete economically with other nations, combat poverty, and raise its standard of living, our nation must have a well-educated citizenry. It must not allow talents to go undeveloped. If independent colleges cannot provide enough opportunities for all would-be-students to have a good education, then the government has a responsibility to provide such an opportunity for them. Because of lack of finances and other reasons, private society has not met the educational needs of all the people of the nation. As a result, the government understandably has stepped into the gap by establishing its own universities. In this way, the need for teachers, doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers and the like has been partially met.

The danger arises, however, when supplementary governmental activity becomes so primary that independent education becomes merely supplementary. That is what has happened today, as the presence of 63% of the nation’s college and university students in governmental institutions testifies. The ideal situation is one in which the governmental and independent schools become partners in the public enterprise of educating the nation’s students. For independent schools need the governmental ones, and vice versa.

The basic reason for the dramatic decline of the independent universities since 1950 has been the tuition gap between state and independent colleges and universities. Because of massive governmental subsidization of state and municipal institutions, the average tuition and required fees for a student in a governmental liberal arts college are only one-fourth of the cost at the independent universities.2 Such a price gap is dramatically demonstrated when the state takes over private institutions, offers approximately the same educational facilities and opportunities as before, and yet radically drops the tuition charges. Naturally, a great number of students and parents will be forced or enticed by a savings of hundreds of dollars in one year alone to choose state education.

Dr. James M. Hester, President of New York University, warns about the decline of the independent university. “When the City University (New York City) decides, all of a sudden, to increase radically the number of freshmen from New York City high schools who will receive free tuition, the effect on the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University and the undergraduate College of Washington Square [independent institutions] is similar to the effect on the Encyclopedia Britannica Company of some Federal agency starting to give away sets of an encyclopedia produced by the government.”3

Not only does the low price tag exercise a magnetic charm toward prospective students, but the quality of instruction at the state schools is increasingly attracting students, who, two decades ago, would have chosen independent schools. Because the governmental resources are so huge and so easy to tap, state universities are often furnished with expensive research and instructional equipment that the private colleges and universities cannot afford. Furthermore, state-operated schools are increasingly attracting top-notch teachers away from the private schools by salaries the latter cannot afford to pay. The result is that the smaller, independent colleges, which used to be able to draw first-class students because of their distinctively fine education, are now finding that the governmental schools are rapidly equalling their offerings, if they have not already surpassed them, and at roughly one-fourth the tuition. Provision of state quality education at a discount price is the chief factor in the decline of the independent schools.



Is it possible, then, to work out a solution whereby the following requirements are satisfied: academic freedom, a true partnership between the independent and state schools, and quality education within reach of all students?

Fortunately, there is. Twenty~two states, and in particular New York, have already pointed the way. One solution is the provision of substantial governmental scholarships and tuition grants to needy students to be used at any approved college or university. In New York State, for example, in the academic year 1964–65, 207,000 scholarships and tuition grants were distributed (70,000 Regents College Scholar~ ships and 137,000 Scholar Incentive Awards ) costing $53,~ 000,000. In the Regents Scholarship program (established in 1913), the awards, based on family income, range from $250 a year to $700 a year, the average award being $405 in the academic year 1962–1963. Whereas the Regents Scholarships are based in part on scholastic ability, the Scholar Incentive Awards are available to every legal resident of New York State who, as a full-time student, demonstrates promise of satisfactorily completing the requirements of his degree in any approved college in the state. Under this plan, undergraduate students may receive up to $300 a year toward meeting tuition costs above $200, and graduate students may secure up to $800 a year for that purpose. In the academic year 1962–63, the average Scholar Incentive assistance was $204. By supplementing a Regents Scholarship with a Scholar Incentive Award, an undergraduate student at a private college may receive up to $1,000 a year for four years. A significant feature of these programs is that the financial aid is limited to tuition and fees. Thus students at a tuition-free college (e.g., The City University of New York) will not receive tuition aid—since their tuition is already paid for by the public—although they may receive up to $350 a year for fees.

A second significant means of checking the trend toward government monopoly would be educational tax credits, similar to tax credits allowed for business for the purpose of industrial improvements. Tax credits would permit any taxpayer (student, parent, relative or friend) to subtract from his federal income tax (not merely to deduct from his gross taxable income) a portion of the tuition and required fees paid to institutions of higher learning. Others, including the Republican Party in 1965, have advocated that low-income families that pay no income tax be given grants by the Treasury Department of the federal government. These grants would equal the tax credit which they would be entitled to claim if they paid a tax. Some educators and U.S. Congressmen have suggested a sliding scale to benefit chiefly those with moderate and low incomes, with a ceiling to cut off benefits to wealthier taxpayers. The advantages of the tax credits plan are the avoidance of the state-church controversy and government controls, the reduction of money being wasted by going through another governmental agency, and simplicity of operation. In 1964 Senators Humphrey, Goldwater and Ribicoff, among others, introduced bills along these lines. Senator Ribicoffs bill was defeated by a 48–45 vote.

Such scholarship aid and tax credits would relieve the financial pressure which is now coercing hundreds of thousands of students to attend state schools. It would enable many a student to choose an independent university, which in many cases would be better suited to meet his particular needs, but whose high tuition costs now preclude him from attending it. Such policies would significantly brake the trend toward a state monopoly in higher education and would help to restore the independent university in America. They would encourage survival of the wholesome diversity which has been a hallmark of American education and which reflects the pluralism of our country.

Is not the cost of such a program prohibitive? The remarkable fact is that $50,000,000-programs such as New York State’s is a savings instead of a cost to the taxpayer. For if the government had to provide campuses, buildings, and equipment in addition to high annual operating expenses for those students in independent universities who now receive state aid, it would cost the public vastly more than the annual aid which now encourages many students to go to other than state institutions. Tuition scholarships and tax credits together would cover only a fraction of the total cost of education.

Thus, it is possible to have economy in addition to academic freedom, a diversified educational system, and a meaningful freedom of choice for students and parents.

1. In the academic year 1949–50, only 50.4% of all college students attended non-state schools. (Digest of Educational Statistics, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Table 96.)

2. For the full academic year 1962–63 the median tuition and required fees for full-time undergraduate students in independent liberal arts colleges were $751, whereas at the governmental colleges they were only $168. For all types of institutions the median cost was $690 and $170 respectively. (Digest of Educational Statistics, 1964 Edition, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Table 82.)

3. From a speech given at the annual Scholarship Fund Dinner of Long Island University (Feb., 1964).

This month the schools throughout Canada and the United States again open their doors. In today’s educational world, however, there are significant changes which we dare not overlook.

In this article Dr. Edwin H. Palmer, pastor of Grandville Ave. Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI, directs our attention to the growing monopoly  of education by the state. This bodes ill for the future of true academic freedom in our land.