How Reform Conservatives Can Help Higher Education

The Republicans’ massive victory on all levels of American politics requires them to be more than anti-Obama or anti-progressive. They must implement policies that will contribute to the flourishing of all of American life. “Reform conservatives”–such as Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin–have taken the lead in showing that Republicans have to do more than cut taxes for “job creators” and embark on maximum conceivable deregulation. It’s not enough to say that economic growth alone will obliterate the relational issues connected with our struggling, broken families and our sinking middle class. Sure, most genuinely conservative and therefore “progressive” policies—policies attuned to the transformational effects of the 21st-century global competitive marketplace—will be market-based and decentralizing. But Levin in particular reminds us that economic and political liberty should help individuals find their personal significance as parents, children, creatures, citizens, and friends.

Ponnuru and Levin, quite admirably, have quickly turned our attention to how Republican reform might make higher education better.  Republicans, it’s true, haven’t thought much about that. Meanwhile, our liberal educational leaders, Silicon-Valley foundations (Gates), and government bureaucrats have. So, although any libertarian conservative is inclined to begin with the thought that the national government ought to leave our colleges and universities alone, it’s too late to embrace such a simple solution, at least for now. What I’m about to say both supplements their empirical analysis and, I hope, tweaks more than a little the policy stand of us reform conservatives. One point worth emphasizing up front: Ponnuru and Levin think our colleges can use some more market-based discipline, and that’s true in some ways. But we shouldn’t neglect the fact that a lot of what they’re already doing is in response to that discipline.

Diagnosing the Problem

The first fact the authors present is the tripling of tuition over the last 30 years. The retail price of education at a private college is more than half the income of the average American family. I should add: The retail price at private colleges is something like the retail price at the routinely discount clothier Joseph A. Banks. Nobody pays it. The increase in tuition, at many colleges, has been accompanied by an almost corresponding increase in the “discount rate,” the percentage of the sticker price the student actually pays.

So here’s part of the real problem. Dealing with the admissions and financial-aid situation at private colleges now is much more complicated than the used-car market. It’s not something that naive teenagers and their clueless parents should have to face alone. One advantage of going to a good high school is the guidance counselor or some equivalent expert who can navigate students through the process and find them the best possible deal. Students who borrow big bucks to go to bad private colleges just haven’t gotten the advice they need. Kids with modest resources who don’t qualify for lots of financial aid, obviously, should go to public institutions, and our country is full of decent ones. It’s an abuse of the marketplace when the admissions representatives of colleges convince them otherwise, and those reps are driven, first of all, but doing what’s required to keep their schools in business.

Still, those who say that bubble in educational costs is something like the housing bubble a few years ago are far from completely wrong. Prices skyrocket, while quality gets shoddier.  What is that money paying for? Many think it must be mainly the ridiculous salaries of lazy, self-indulgently political correct “tenured radicals.” Well, there’s some truth to that, but less and less. The percentage of full-time faculty nationwide is dropping with stunning speed and now is barely over 20 percent. Meanwhile, the number of temporary and adjunct faculty soars.  The total number of faculty is, at best, stagnant, while the number of administrators continues to bloat. College administrators are often almost deranged by techno-enthusiasm, embracing every scheme to use machines and the screen to cut instructional costs.

So the cost of instruction is often actually going down. And the main reason for bloated tuitions are expensive initiatives that have nothing to do with instruction. Some of these are fueled by intrusively politically correct student affairs staffs and the cost of compliance with needless federal requirements. But most of them have to do amenities that have very little to nothing to do with instruction but allegedly everything to do with recruiting and retaining students–such as gourmet food in the cafeteria, a health-club gym, many–including new– non-revenue generating intercollegiate athletic teams, hotel-quality dorms, student affairs staffs that function like concierges to fend off dreaded student boredom, and so forth. Students actually do show that most students who choose a residential private college do so with these lifestyle perks far more than the quality or value of the academic program in mind. Colleges are in some cases emptying students’ pockets in order to give them what they really want.

Our best students still often choose our most academically elite colleges with academic excellence in mind.  And, although it may or may not really be true, few doubt that Harvard or Swarthmore is worth the money in terms of both the educational experience and making the contacts required to get top jobs and get into the best graduate and professional schools. They also have, due to their huge endowments, enough financial aid to meet legitimate student need.  The median student at Swarthmore pays barely more than a third of the sticker price.

But dropping below that elite level, there’s cutthroat competition among private residential colleges (and, to some extent, all our residential institutions) for the scarce resource of potential students. Administrators are increasingly convinced that the liberal-arts brand doesn’t “sell,” and that students would prefer careerist majors that offer them immediate and obvious points of entry into employment. As colleges change in this direction, the character of the curriculum from one place to another varies less and less, especially as traditionally religious schools surrender most of their confessional educational mission. So what’s left to distinguish one college from another is amenities, and they don’t come cheap. Once again, colleges are being disciplined by the market, by the consumer.

The Changing Face of Higher-Ed

Meanwhile, the mission of all our nonselective schools have changed. America, as a whole, is getting less competent. More precisely, our best high schools are getting better, while most of them are getting worse. The remedy for this problem, many of our colleges (out of self-interest), our foundations, and our government think, is to get as many young people to go to college.  College is charged with the job that used to reliably performed by most of our high schools, to get young people up to a level of basic competence required for most entry-level positions in our workforce.  The main reason that some many modest jobs now require a college degree is to ensure that competence. So college, which used to aim at “higher” excellence, is now charged with achieving and demonstrating workplace competence.

Maybe the main reason college degrees are worth less, however, is that we increasingly count on college to do the job high school used to but no longer does–give young people a standard level of basic competence required by most entry-level jobs.  Maybe the main reason college degrees at private, residential colleges cost more is those schools, to fill themselves up, are stuck with  providing students with all kinds of costly bells and whistles that have nothing to do with their education. I don’t think, for the record, that the opportunity for personal attention from career faculty is a mere amenity that should only be available to those studying at elite institution, while students at most schools are spending all their time stuck in from of screens.

One remedy, as Ponnuru and Levin point out, is to gradually cut back on the place of the federal government loan subsidy business.  It’s that government facilitated easy credit that was also, after all, a cause of the housing bubble. And private colleges that have distinctive academic missions that are attractive to various “niche” constituencies have an additional incentive to divest themselves of the amenities that drive dependence on excessive student borrowing.  They should cut back to what they do best, which might mean dispensing with screens altogether in most classrooms. The only reason decent colleges should worry about submitting to the increasingly intrusive and expensive accreditation process is to qualify for those government bucks. Preserving and enhancing the genuine diversity–moral, religious, and pedagogical–that is the saving grace of America’s unique system of private education may depend on it becoming more privatized.

Reform conservatives, of course, should never to fail to mention the indispensable place such “countercultural” higher education has in our free country. American freedom, historically, has been freedom for the flourishing of places like BYU and Notre Dame, not to mention Gordon, Bard, Deep Springs, Baylor, Providence, Thomas Aquinas and St. John’s. Our increasingly political-correct foundation-government-accreditation complex will likely continue to increase its hostility to their freedom to choose for themselves what it means to be a liberally educated person. The world of techno-assessment and competencies, in truth, has no place for what they do best.

There are also some places that focus their countercultural efforts far less on their academic programs than their co-curricular efforts at the development of character, such as Berry, Morehouse, Berea, and our military academies. The market for the focus on “moral virtue” flows from the fairly true–if exaggerated–perception that most our duty-free colleges with their state-of-nature dorms are actually making young people worse, less fit for the real competitive marketplace. The irony is that the “bubble” that is out-of-control tuition costs is funding the “bubble” that is the unrealistic self-indulgence that is too much of campus life.

Meanwhile, those private, residential colleges that are about little more than providing basic competency in an amenity-laden environment probably deserve to go out of business.  Often, their misguided efforts at disruptive techno-innovation will lead to their uncreative destruction.  If higher education is pretty much about the techno-delivery of workplace skills, then students should attend state schools–and probably commute and work part-time to minimize borrowing.  Unlike Ponnuru and Levin, I don’t think, in fact, that there’s a big need for “for profit” schools to supplement what our community, technical, and regional state colleges do well enough.  I certainly don’t think it’s a good idea to incentivize for-profit schools more than the market alone would by qualifying them for government subsidized loans.

Perhaps the truncated government loan and aid program should be focused on every American having some opportunity for higher education, not a luxury cruise that they enjoy by borrowing against their futures.  Our country–our states and in some small way our national government–owes them that opportunity, given how far short most of our high schools have come in providing our citizens the techno-vocational foundation they need to flourish in a middle-class country.

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