Malcolm Gladwell recently ranked America’s best law schools when taking into account value for the dollar. Perhaps unsurprisingly, under this new rubric BYU ranked number two. In the past, I’ve often noted BYU’s value with a sense of pride and admiration. But this time, perhaps because I’m currently paying for another school, I began asking why: “Why is the tithing I pay subsidizing the costs of education for a small subset of Mormons?”
On a narrow level, we could begin by asking what purpose BYU serves. The unique role that BYU appears to play is to serve as a center for perpetuating Mormon culture, both through exposure to a set of beliefs and social norms and as a match-making institution. And, reasonable people could conclude that this purpose is worth subsidizing.
But if we conclude this model is outdated, but do believe that it is still helpful to provide low-cost education, then tithing could still help achieve that goal. Rather than subsidizing a particular university through tithing, it is possible to imagine that the Church “rebating” tithing to those in school, maybe via bishops or church welfare, allowing them to have a tithing-subsidized education at the institution that best serves their needs. Such an alternative system could benefit broader, more global groups of Mormons. Additional money could be invested in building up an LDS presence at other universities, allowing Mormons around the world to have places to meet each other.
But thinking about the purpose of BYU leads to a larger question that Mormons rarely discuss. What precisely are appropriate uses of tithing? Should tithing be spent only on welfare and direct church needs? Or would it be appropriate to spend it on larger social goals such as education or preservation of the environment?
Additionally, what are appropriate ways to administer tithing once we identify proper goals? Must tithing be administered through church organizations? Could the church make grants to unaffiliated organizations? Would it be appropriate to give money directly to members to finance causes like education or microcredit loans? Is there any historical or scriptural guidance on this topic?