Posts Tagged ‘altruism’

SOCIAL PSYCH: “With No Frills or Tuition, a College Draws Notice” from The New York Times

August 5, 2008

In the growing debate over higher learning institutions and how they use their funds, The New York Times spotlighted Berea College, a private institution with a large endowment and a founding mission to accept only applicants from low-income families.   Students receive a tuition-free education and must work on campus in a variety of different areas, as part of the deal.  In stark relief, the author compared wealthy institutions such as Harvard and Yale, and asked “whether the wealthiest universities are doing enough for the public good to warrant their tax exemption, or simply hoarding money to serve an elite few.” 

The issue cuts to the heart of altruism as well as the reasons humans engage in pro-social behavior in the first place.  Focusing first on the individual, students at Berea prove they are deserving of aid (norm of social justice) by showing their ability for future success in advance of acceptance.   Berea gives free tuition in exchange for work, an example of reciprocal altruism. 

Taking a big picture gander at the institutions doing the “helping,” it is important to look at American history and maybe genetics as a guide to why we engage in altruism.  The United States and American democracy were founded on the “sometimes conflicting value orientations of individualism and egalitarianism.” (Franzoi)  As a young nation that wanted to survive and thrive, improving your situation through hard work, education, and helping others was paramount to developing the nation, and in a tough wilderness, continuing the species.  In the case of the institutions in the piece, the schools with the largest endowments, Harvard, Yale, etc., were also the first universities in the United States—established to provide brighter futures for new generations of Americans, and in reciprocity, make the country stronger.  It is interesting that these schools are now being criticized for holding on to vast amounts of money, raising tuition to astronomic levels, and providing much of their funding for research to advance their own needs—the schools’ reputations—instead of providing more financial aid to students in need.

Adding fuel to the debate, what is implied but not stated in the article is that the government relies heavily on not-for-profits (and offers strong tax incentives) to address many needs that big government simply cannot take on.  These institutions remind me of spoiled children. By existing in a system where money is not an issue, they lack empathy and have forgotten from whence the came.

If human beings best respond to reciprocal altruism, scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, perhaps a program themed around altruistic giving as a means to strengthen America might be an interesting program aimed at curbing America’s  growing me versus we mentality.  Using both central and peripheral routes of persuasion through advertising and public relations efforts, the government would first launch a campaign through a secondary source, perhaps key not-for-profits such as the Red Cross and major universities, showing how the existence of these not-for-profits reduces America’s tax burden.  A second phase of messaging would persuade Americans to give to the local not-for-profit to improve America’s future—we’re in this together. 

Complementing the direct efforts, schools teaching pre-school through college age children would include annual altruistic components in their curriculums and would require families to “donate” a set amount of time and money to the not-for-profit or community organization of their choice, with the reward being a tax break and positive recognition.  Families would also be given the opportunity to receive points towards reductions in college tuition, starting at pre-school age, as long as the family participated in a minimal number of hours in not-for-profit activity, with each other.  These tactics reflect the use of observational learning, the children modeling after the parents, and rewarding prosocial behavior through tax breaks and recognition.  A key component of college acceptance would be dependent on the applicant’s level of work with not-for-profits in high school and students would be given the option of paying for college through community and college improvement work.     A core curriculum class in active altruism would be required at all colleges. The end result might be increased altruism as part of our daily existence.