Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Bernie Sanders’s Proposal to Suffocate Religious Higher Education

When the leftward end of the American political spectrum proposes yet another government program or entitlement, the budgetary costs and the dangers of ever bigger government tend to be immediately apparent.

That's not to say, of course, that those in elite circles or the mainstream media are quick to ask those impertinent questions about saddling future generations with ever-more debt and unsustainable entitlements or about how much liberty should be sacrificed to accommodate the demands of larger government. In each election cycle, the left offers to add still more entrees to the buffet of government benefits, promising an ever-bigger “free lunch.” And the generally sympathetic media tends to hype yet another government benefit, focusing primarily on those who would directly benefit, while downplaying the costs and how to pay for it.

Nonetheless, for those who are paying attention and especially for those who are sensitive to the cumulative harm imposed on a healthy society that comes from ever-increasing dependence on government, the downsides are usually easy to identify.   When senator and socialist candidate Bernie Sanders proposes free tuition for all public universities and colleges, for example, what criticism follows is likely to focus first on the enormous costs and next on the creep of federal control over higher education.St.Thomas.1024px-St_Thomas_campus

But, sometimes, an even-greater threat lurks below the surface, not so easily detected. By definition, unanticipated consequences tend to be, well, not anticipated. The sad fact remains that most Americans — definitely including those who populate the opinion-leading sectors of government, academia, and the media — have but a passing familiarity with economic side-effects or any appreciation for collateral social consequences that follow new social experiments. 

For this reason, most are unlikely to perceive the grave danger that the Sanders proposal poses to intellectual and cultural diversity in American higher education and particularly to faith-based colleges and universities.

The most obvious downside to the Sanders proposal for free tuition at all public colleges or universities is the enormous cost. As we have learned with each new program or entitlement invented by politicians in the Democratic Party (and sometimes in the Republican Party), estimates of the cost when selling the program always turns out to be wildly understated. The ultimate expense imposed on the taxpayers — or more likely on future generations through more public debt — invariably rises exponentially above the original estimate. Such would undoubtedly be the case with the Sanders proposal.


To be sure, Sanders assures everyone that the cost will be fully borne by higher taxes on “Wall Street.” “Soak the rich” promises are never kept, because they were not responsibly-made. Even setting aside the fact that any taxes on any segment of the population drains investment for entrepreneurial and job-creating activities into the hungry maw of the governmental class, full funding of this new benefit inevitably will mean higher taxes for all. In reality, once fully implemented, the Sanders proposal would engineer a transfer of wealth from the blue-collar worker who did not attend college to the white-collar college graduate who can secure a higher-paying job.

The next most obvious detrimental consequence of the Sanders proposal would be an unprecedented and large-scale shift of traditional state and local control of education to the federal government. Receipt of federal dollars usually comes with strings attached — especially when the money goes directly to entities rather than enhancing individual choice.

Senator Sanders has been candid in this respect. He criticizes state college and universities for spending money in ways that he does not like and assures us that his plan would bring this to a halt. For now Sanders pokes at easy targets, complaining about money spent on “fancy dormitories and on giant football stadiums.”

But make no mistake. Once the federal camel’s nose comes further under the higher education tent, the rest of the camel — that is, comprehensive federal control of public colleges — will soon follow.

One of the great strengths of American higher education is its diversity, both in public and private sectors. In the public sector, each state is able to make its own choices about how to fund a public university and community college system, about which programs to emphasize and make distinctive, about which programs of study to incentivize by special scholarships and financial aid benefits, about which types of scientific and other research are most deserving of support, etc. And, because the states are smaller political units, the citizens of that state have at least some say in these matters through their elected representatives.

If tuition funding for public colleges and universities were dominated by the federal government, state and local choices would be displaced by federal priorities set by federal officials. The one that pays the way will become the one that has the say.

The state-by-state multi-colored tapestry that currently describes American universities and colleges will gradually become a monochromatic carpet woven by federal officials. And, because the federal bureaucracy is geographically distant and considerably less responsive to democratic voices, higher education policy and priorities would come to be made by “experts” ensconced in the bureaucratic corridors of Washington, D.C.

While those considerable risks are more than sufficient reason to be wary of the Sanders proposal, the threat to diversity of American higher education is more far-reaching. By funneling ever more money directly to public colleges, private colleges will be shunted to the side. As time passes, private colleges — and especially those private colleges that do not march to tune of the federal education bureaucrats — will be squeezed out.

As the budgetary strain from the Sanders proposal became heavier, the natural course would be to divert more and more educational resources to the effectively federally-controlled public system and away from student choice for private colleges. We’d soon hear arguments that a student selecting a more-expensive private college was making a selfish choice that should not be encouraged by eligibility for federally-funded or -guaranteed financial aid. And the pleas of any student who had the temerity to choose a religious-affiliated university or college would fall on deaf secular ears.

Moreover, Senator Sanders has been explicit in his opposition to anything that could remotely be characterized as “public support” for private education. He stands with the public teachers’ unions, telling the American Federation of Teachers that he is “strongly opposed to any voucher system that would re-direct public education dollars to private schools, including through the use of tax credits.” In other words, even when the program enhances the free choice of parents and when the application of a voucher to a private school is made by the parents and not the government, Sanders labels the program as re-direction of public money to private schools.

NotredameMain_Building_at_the_University_of_Notre_DameBy the same reasoning, Sanders and company would soon be decrying federally-subsidized or -guaranteed student loans for college students choosing private colleges as a diversion of “public education dollars” from the “free” tuition program for public colleges. The secular left would take up the banner of “Separation Between Church and State” to call for an end to any student financial aid that is applied by the student to a private religious college. And religious colleges would be targeted for refusing to “get with the program” and follow newly-declared federal priorities in higher education — or would be accused of “discriminating” on the basis of religion or something other. The day would soon arrive when a student would be barred from applying any government-supported financial aid — whether directly or by guaranteed-loan or through tax deduction — to a religiously-affiliated college.

Indeed, freedom of choice would be the biggest casualty of the Sanders proposal. Most financial aid programs for higher education today leave the choice of how to apply those dollars to the individual student who seeks to expand his or her opportunities. A direct federal government-funding proposal would put the national government in control. Not surprisingly, a socialist prefers a government-directed solution over individual free choice.

While these consequences may be unanticipated for most observers, Senator Sanders likely is aware of what his proposal may mean for religious higher education and is at least sanguine about it. If the Sanders proposal proves to be another step toward federal dominance of higher education and away from religious and other diversity among colleges, we should not expect any tears to be shed by the secular left.

Instead, I speak to those of us who remain committed to diversity of thought, who believe that liberty is better preserved with private intermediary institutions that are not under the sway of the government, and who support freedom of choice for those who wish to study at a religiously-affiliated college. For us, now is the time to sound the alarm against the Sanders move toward nationalization of higher education.


Sisk, Greg | Permalink