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Who Should Pay Higher Education Tuition Fees?

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Ugnius is an avid reader who likes to discuss philosophical and political issues.

Who should carry the financial burden of higher education?

Who should carry the financial burden of higher education?

Applying Moral Philosophy to the Cost of Education

A question regarding which party—the government or students—should pay university tuition fees can be approached in various ways using different moral philosophies. On the one hand, in his book (A Theory of Justice), egalitarianism advocate John Rawls presents two principles of justice:

"First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.that universities should be available for people regardless of their economic positions, " (Rawls, 1971, p. 53).

Therefore, the governments must ensure that university education is free of charge. On the other hand, libertarianism supporter Robert Nozick would say that only the minimal state is justified, otherwise it is violating people’s rights (Nozick, 1974, p. 149). Hence, the government should not intervene and, therefore, university education should be paid for everyone. After applying these normative philosophies to the question of higher education, I will present my own opinion based on the most convincing arguments presented in the text.

An Egalitarian Approach

Rawls would argue that university tuition fees should be paid by governments in order to make it just. He claims that in any society, social values such as liberty, opportunity, income, wealth, etc. should be distributed equally (Rawls, 1971, p. 54). Nevertheless, the second Rawls principle of justice—the difference principle—allows “social and economic inequalities” if they are distributed in such a way that they both (1) make positions and offices accessible to the whole society and (2) work to the advantage of the less fortunate members of society (1971, p. 53). Applying the theory to the case means that every member of society wishing to apply to the university should have the same probability to be selected unless, in some way, the unequal selection would provide more benefits to the society as a whole.

My assumption is that accepting naturally intelligent persons to universities would create inequalities, but also would be more advantageous to the least well-off members of society than accepting everyone regardless of their natural endowments. Therefore, selection of people by universities should be conducted according to people’s natural talents. However, if the education had to be paid by students, part of the most talented students might not have enough capital to pay for it. This would prevent advantaging the least well-off members of society (Sandel, 2009, pp. 153; 156-157). Therefore, education should be free of charge for the whole society and selection process to the universities should be based on intelligence only.

Nevertheless, this poses a problem—how should the government provide free education for students when it costs a significant amount of money? Rawls would suggest implementing progressive tax system. Since the division of social circumstances and natural endowments is morally arbitrary, social structure should distribute natural talents as collective assets and, moreover, be arranged to benefit the less fortunate in the society. Progressive taxation fits Rawls's theory of justice because:

  1. it advantages the least fortunate members of society;
  2. it reduces existing inequalities.

To conclude, governments should pay university tuition fees for students in order to benefit the least fortunate members of society.

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A Libertarian Approach

On the contrary, Nozick would disagree with Rawls's theory and would argue that university fees should be paid by students. His main idea is that only a minimal state that enforces contracts, safeguards private property and ensures the peace is justified—any other intervention by the state is morally wrong (Sandel, 2009, p. 60). This is because Nozick refutes Rawls's idea that a person and his talents belong to a community; instead, he proposes the idea of self-ownership (Sandel, 2009, p. 65).

"I own myself, I must own my labor. (If someone else could order me to work, that person would be my master, and I would be a slave.) But if I own my labor, I must be entitled to the fruits of my labor. (If someone else were entitled to my earnings, that person would own my labor and would therefore own me.)" (Sandel, 2009, p. 65).

Taxation of earnings gained from labour is the same as a forced labour because if the state can take a person's earnings, it can also take their time, and subsequently, if the state can take a person’s time, it can also raise a claim to a property right of a person (p. 65). Therefore, Nozick claims that redistributive taxes imposed by states is a form of coercion or ever theft and individuals should have discretion whether to support less fortunate or not (pp. 60-61). To conclude, Nozick would disagree with Rawls's theory and would say that the government should not have the power to impose redistributive taxes and, therefore, to decide whether a university education should be free or paid.

A Consideration of Both Views

In my opinion, Rawls's normative philosophy is more compelling when addressing the question of higher education. First of all, I agree that people’s chances to be selected to universities should not depend on contingent economic and social factors. Rawls's principles of justice allow the government to tackle this issue by redistributing wealth equally or allowing inequalities that work to the advantage of the whole society (Rawls, 1971, p. 53-54).

On the other hand, Nozick allows any kind of inequalities as long as it was created by his principle of distributive justice, which states that “(…) a distribution is just if everyone is entitled to the holdings they possess under the distribution” (Nozick, 1974, p. 151). In practice, a significant amount of students cannot afford to go to the universities because of social and economic contingencies. Therefore, I think that Nozick’s theory is unjust because it deprives a fair amount of students the opportunity to attend universities, whereas Rawls's theory diminishes the importance of socially and economically contingent facts.

What is more, I agree that human talents should work to promote collective good rather than the individual. Rawls would argue that no one really deserves to be naturally gifted; therefore, endowments should work for a society as a whole (Sandel, 2009, pp. 153; 156-157). Nozick disagrees by saying that a person owns himself, his labour and his talents; therefore, he should have discretion how to use it (Sandel, 2009, pp. 69-70). Since natural endowments are contingent, I would disagree with Nozick’s theory that talents can be used only for self-good. Instead, I would agree with Rawls's theory that distributes natural assets fairly. To conclude, I would definitely agree with the Rawls's normative philosophy.

In this article, I applied two normative philosophies to the question which party—the government or students should pay tuition fees when going to the universities. John Rawls would argue that the governments should pay tuition fees, whereas Robert Nozick would claim it is morally wrong for the governments to collect revenue and pay for students. Lastly, I presented my view that John Rawls's arguments were more convincing than Robert Nozick’s arguments.



Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York: Basic Books.

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Sandel, M. (2009). Justice. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on February 13, 2017:

Excellent and interesting article, Ugnius. I believe that government should have a strong role in paying tuition for college students. I also believe that the student should have some obligation to pay depending on their family wealth and the student's academic standing. It would also be a very good idea for a student to perform post-college community service for the tuition the government pays.

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