The Value of Education

Harvard In Mind

I am about to graduate $7,000 in debt, so these days I frequently think about money and my education. At the Leverett Open House last week, President Summers said something that disturbed me: he said Harvard should charge students tuition even if it had unlimited monetary resources because people value the things they pay for more than the things they get for free.

When I was in third grade I lost three coats in the same number of months. Each time I lost my jacket, my mother would buy me a nicer one because she thought I would take better care of it. Since I’ve gotten to college, I haven’t lost a single significant purchase. What’s the moral of the story? One could say I just proved Summers point: I care about the coats I paid for more than those my mother bought me. But that ignores the nuances of the parent-child fiscal relationship, as well as the value of education.

As a child, I didn’t have the money to buy my own coats, so my understanding of my coat’s cost was second-hand. Similarly, my college education is paid for mainly by my parents (the $2,000-$3,000 I earn during the year is a drop in the proverbial bucket). I cannot value Harvard (although guilt is a great motivator) simply because it is a financial burden for my parents. That one-step removal from actual earning is a substantial one; at nine, I could not comprehend that my coat represented hours of labor to my mother, nor at 22 can I fully grasp the many years of saving—some before I was born—that went into my college fund.

I believe that I value my Harvard education because of my hard work in getting here, not because of the abstract thought that it costs my parents a lot of money. Even if we assume that I am a particularly ungrateful individual, would Summers really argue that the Harvard students to whose parents tuition represents a much smaller (if not non-existent) financial burden value their education less? I can readily admit that students who found Harvard admission an easy accomplishment may undervalue its worth, but I cannot believe the same for those students whose parents pay less proportionate to their incomes but who struggled mightily to get here.

If Summers really believed his maxim that paying for something makes people value it more, then Harvard should radically alter its financial aid program accordingly. Each family should be taxed proportionate to their income so they can appreciate the full value of their education. In other words, families should experience proportionate (and therefore, in one sense, equal) economic burdens.

Currently, students on financial aid do experience this progressive education tax. But the 50 percent of the students who do not receive Harvard money must, according to Summers, value their educations by greatly differing amounts. The 30 percent of my family’s income that tuition represents is a far greater burden than the 1 percent another family pays. Perhaps it is even greater than the proportion paid by some families on financial aid. Do I really value my education more?

It is true that there is some objective cost to house, feed and educate a Harvard student. But no student, however wealthy, actually pays that cost. Nor, since education is a public good, should they. We live in a society that believes that people should contribute to public goods proportionate to their ability. No one in America pays the objective cost of providing public goods for themselves. Instead, some pay more, and some pay less.

No one pays the cost of protecting just them from nuclear attack or paving the streets for just them to drive on. Rather, we all bear an equal burden to provide national security, interstate transportation and an educated citizenry. Harvard may be a private institution, but it receives substantial public funding from the government and provides what is certainly considered a public good. It may have been nurtured in its early years by social elites who saw its liberal education as the privilege of the rich, not the entitlement of the talented, but times have changed. Education is no longer a luxury good.

Summers is a smart man fluent in economic jargon. It is all too easy for him to gloss over the moral basis for our social welfare system. In the current debate over school vouchers, made more immediate by the recent decision by Philadelphia to privatize its schools, we must include the incalculables in our cost-benefit analysis. Summers should remember that while the language of economics and incentives can be a useful tool, it does not tell the whole story.

If I were Harvard’s president and I had unlimited resources, I would make education free. In doing so, I would price it far higher than Summers does.

Meredith B. Osborn ’02 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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