Moody’s and the Crisis of the Universities

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From the New Criterion

Last month
we noted some of the trends affecting the future of higher education in this
country. One trend is the explosion in tuition and fees over the last several
decades, an explosion matched by the hypertrophy of college administrators, as
more and more “deans of diversity” and programs in non-subjects like women’s
studies batten on the economic lifeblood of an institution. At many top-rated
institutions today, the total yearly tab exceeds $60,000.

Where is
that money coming from? And–the question of questions–what do you get for it?
Those are questions that more and more parents and prospective students will be
asking, and the colleges and universities that are pimping themselves for
tuition dollars will not like the answer many of them will arrive at.
Spiraling, indeed unsustainable, costs are not the only ominous reality facing
the higher educational establishment. 

There is
also the softening of other sources of revenue, from private philanthropy to
subsidies from the public coffers. No one believes that the strained economic
environment that precipitated this retrenchment is going away anytime soon,
which means that colleges and universities will continue to face an economic
pincer movement: pressure to lower tuition, on the one hand, and reduced
subsidies, on the other.

Those financial
struggles are but skirmishes along the border compared with the technological
sea change that is poised to transform the character of higher education. As we
pointed out last month, the advent of free, online courses, proferred by the
best teachers at the best universities, is still in its infancy. But it
promises to spark a revolution that will utterly transform the institutions of
higher education. As Nathan Harden wrote in The American Interest, “If a
faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it
will quickly supplant what came before. People will not continue to pay tens of
thousands of dollars for what technology allows them to get for free.”

Last month,
we focused on the promise as well as the peril inherent in that burgeoning
technological reality. A new report from Moody’s Investors Service about the
financial outlook for higher education prompts us to return to the economic
side of the equation. As a report from Inside Higher Ed noted, the
Moody’s report “outlines how every traditional revenue stream for colleges and
universities is facing some sort of pressure, a finding Moody’s uses as grounds
for giving the whole sector a negative outlook.”

Writing about the
report in Minding the Campus, KC Johnson, the Brooklyn College professor
of history who set the record straight about the so-called “Duke rape case”
(see our report on The New Criterion‘s weblog, “Armavirumque,” April 11,
2007), goes beyond the numbers to ask, “What’s the Meaning of the Moody’s
Report?” He argues that, with respect to the institutional realities of higher
education, “the most significant change . . . over the past generation has been
the explosion of administrators’ positions, whose rate of growth has far
exceeded that of full-time faculty. . . . [T]he emergence of administrators has
had a pernicious effect: student life bureaucracies have a well-deserved
reputation for both political correctness and a hostility to free exchange on
campus.” If asked to explain the wildfire growth of their administrations,
college officials would say, “It’s what the customer wants.” That huge “student
life bureaucracy,” Johnson observes, was supposed to “enhance the typical
student’s campus experience, since these students are incapable of navigating
the modern college experience themselves.”

If
that sounds odd given the context–the context being college education, not new
cars, clothing, or foodstuffs–you’re right: it is odd. “[T]he vision behind the
student life bureaucracy sees the student as a consumer rather than a learner,
someone who needs to be accommodated lest he take his finances elsewhere by
transferring.” That’s the theory behind it. There is, as Johnson points out,
this wrinkle: “Student life bureaucracies rarely work this way, of course; most
often, they focus on enhancing ‘diversity’ by championing policies to ensure
that certain groups of students never feel uncomfortable on campus.” That’s the
status quo. But the Moody’s report is one more indication that the status quo
is unsustainable. Ironically, in the first instance, the result is likely to be
an increase, not a diminution, in those “student life bureaucracies” that have
popped up like toxic mushrooms on college campuses. The continuing financial
contraction will exacerbate the fear of losing students, which in turn “will
enhance the internal power of student life bureaucracies, who will argue that
student retention (and preserving scarce tuition dollars) requires more student
life bureaucrats.”

One predictable result
of the increasingly dire financial situation of the higher education “sector”
is greater public scrutiny of its activities. You might say, “Hurrah! And about
time, too.” The problem is that public scrutiny is not necessarily the same
thing as intelligent scrutiny. KC Johnson is right: we will see many calls for
colleges to “demonstrate that students are fulfilling stated ‘learning
objectives,’ a development born out of the business community and a call for
universities to concretely demonstrate how students are learning.” Sound good?
Or does it sound like a category mistake, imposing a system of rationalization that
may be appropriate when the issue is the production of widgets but is totally
inappropriate when the question is forming free and independent citizens whose
college careers are given over to the liberal arts?

Johnson gets
to the heart of the issue when he stresses that “the concept of ‘outcomes
assessment’ too often has been a cover either for anti-intellectual instruction
that de-emphasizes content or a method to conceal politically correct curricula
on grounds that students are learning ‘skills.’ ” The sad irony, alas, is that
long before this impending crisis the American higher educational
establishment, with the rarest of exceptions and despite lip service to the
contrary, had abandoned that vision of a liberal arts education. In its place
is the smorgasbord of politically correct, “transgressive” alternatives that
have rendered so much of higher education an exercise in psychopathology,
anti-American animus, and minatory left-wing political posturing.

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2013 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

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