National Harbor, Md. — Conservatives have long complained about a perceived liberal bias in higher education, and conservative parents might be especially irked to think that they are paying thousands of dollars in tuition only to have their children turned against them by a bunch of radical professors.
Jim Van Eerden has come up with a resource that he says will give conservative parents a chance to counteract any liberal indoctrination of their children before it happens. His plan would let parents deposit tuition money into a “scholarship” that would go to a child’s college only after the student had passed one or more short online courses offering a “more balanced” take on various issues.
Mr. Van Eerden, who serves as an “entrepreneur in residence” at Grove City College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania, has opened a nonprofit Web site, FreeThinkU, that offers almost 30 free “courses”—each designed to last only a few hours, culminating in a multiple-choice quiz—on topics such as global warming, the Second Amendment, and American exceptionalism.
The courses draw their content from a number of sources, including conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Leadership Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
The idea, said Mr. Van Eerden, is that rather than paying their children’s tuition outright, parents and grandparents will sponsor scholarships through FreeThinkU. In order to unlock the scholarship funds, their college-going progeny will have to take a series of FreeThinkU courses—perhaps “Hedonism: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry?” or “Are You Grateful?”—then pass comprehension quizzes.
That type of arrangement, called an “UP! Scholarship,” will become available to concerned parents and grandparents this spring for a $76 membership fee.
Members can set up other scholarships as well, such as funds aimed at students at particular universities. FreeThinkU believes it can harness money that alumni might have donated to their alma maters, and instead get them to sponsor scholarships that would send current students through FreeThinkU courses, rewarding the students with money for tuition.
“Instead of trying to raise our own independent scholarship money, we’re saying, ‘Listen, don’t you already want to make a gift to Yale? Just make it through this platform,’” said Mr. Van Eerden.
“I think that it’s entirely possible that some institutions will not be particularly excited about what we’re doing,” he added.
Mr. Van Eerden, along with his parents, his son, and other assorted relations and supporters, was promoting FreeThinkU on Friday here in the exhibit hall of the Conservative Political Action Conference, enticing passers-by with warm smiles and peppermint candy.
“There’s an intergenerational gap between the older generation and the collegiate generation, not only ideologically but technologically as well,” said Richard Van Eerden, Jim’s father, who is a co-founder of FreeThinkU. This is a way members of the older generation can try to bridge that gap, he said.
“Mom and Dad are paying a certain portion of their kids’ college, and so they’re just putting some strings on it and saying, ‘Look, here’s your portion that we’re providing, but this is what I want you to do to earn it,’” said the elder Mr. Van Eerden. “It’s a hand up instead of a handout.”
Richard Van Eerden and his wife, Donna, were not shy about their goal of counterbalancing what they see as a professoriate keen on “jamming the liberal party line down their [students’] throats.”
But Jim Van Eerden was less eager to cast FreeThinkU’s mission in political terms. Notwithstanding the organization’s conservative affiliations and hostility toward “PC indoctrination” on many campuses, he insisted that his main problem with higher education was that it fails to ingrain students with critical-thinking skills.
“Most campuses do not” promote critical thinking, reads the organization’s mission statement. “We help explain politically correct opinion, and present the opposing point of view. Why? So you can make up your own mind.”