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Why Millennials Are So Fragile

I have stopped counting the number of times that an academic colleague reminds me that “undergraduates are not what they used to be.” In private conversations, a significant minority of academic teachers have raised the concern that the age-old distinction between school children and university students was fast losing its meaning.

Back in 2003, Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of the study Millennials Go to College, advanced the thesis that this generation is far less mature and resilient than previous ones. They noted that the millennial generation is far more “closely tied to their parents” than the students that preceded them, and they also insist on a “secure and regulated environment.”

Howe and Strauss concluded that as a result, students today find it difficult to flourish in the relatively unstructured environment of higher education. The assessment that the millennials find it more troublesome to make the transition to independent living on campuses than previous generations is widely held by educators on both sides of the Atlantic.

A report last September from Britain’s Higher Education Policy Institute said that the normal experiences of university life now constitute serious challenges to the well-being of the current cohort of students. It noted that “students are vulnerable” because in most cases they are living away from home for the first time. It also pointed to the new challenges they faced such as “a different method of learning” and “living with people they have never met before.”

Related: Should Colleges Coddle the Whiners?

One of the most significant and yet rarely analyzed developments in campus culture has been its infantilization.  Eric Posner, a leading legal scholar at the University of Chicago, declared that “students today are more like children than adults and need protection.” Posner contends that today’s university students are not ready for independence and require the moral guidance of their institutions.

In England, a group educators have criticized universities for treating their new students as if they were young adults. Sir Anthony Seldon, now head of Buckingham University, stated that ‘there is a belief among Vice Chancellors that young people are adults and can fend for themselves, but “18-year-olds today are a lot less robust and worldly wise.”

Most accounts of the unprecedented emotional fragility of university undergraduates claim that this development is the outcome of the expansion of student numbers. They suggest that many of these students come from diverse non-traditional backgrounds and lack the confidence and financial security of their more privileged predecessors. Catherine McAteer, the head of University College London’s student psychological services observed that the reason why a growing number of students require mental health support is because “students are now coming to university” who previously “would not have come.”

Some argue that first-generation students –undergraduates whose parents did not attend university – face unique problems attempting to fit into an alien, high-pressure environment. It is also asserted that since a significant proportion of first-generation students come from minority and socially deprived backgrounds they face a unique problem of adjusting to the traditional white middle- class campus environment.

Related: The New Age of Orthodoxy Overtakes the Campus

The principal problem faced by first-generation students is that their parents had little cultural capital to hand on to them and were, therefore, less prepared for university life than their more comfortably off peers. But unlike today, the problems they faced was not portrayed in psychological terms but in the language of culture and socio-economic deprivation.

Unfortunately, when first-generation students arrive on campus today, they are often treated as if they are likely to possess some emotional deficits. In the U.S. it is common for universities to organize special programs for integrating first-generation students. Diversity officers dealing with the first-generation often operate under the theory that this group faces a unique problem of being torn between family and university. They frequently contend that first-generation students suffer from guilt for leaving their family behind. The upshot of these theories is the belief that first-generation students need special dedicated psychological support.

Regrettably, the focus on psychology distracts attention from more constructive ways of preparing students from disadvantaged backgrounds to deal with the pressures of academic learning. The provision of academic support to help students gain intellectual confidence is probably the most useful way of helping students to make their way in the university.

Perversely the provision of psychological support as the default solution for helping first-generation students is likely to intensify their quest for validation. Instead of developing their power of resilience it may well heighten their sense of vulnerability. What universities need to do is not to cultivate the insecure identity of first-generation students but to provide them with the intellectual resources that will help them to gain confidence in their ability to achieve.

Related: Millennials Not Ready for the Job Market

In any case, it is far from evident if the link between emotional fragility and a student’s non-traditional background explains very much. Students from well-to-do backgrounds are no less likely than their poorer peers to talk the language of trauma and psychological distress. Indeed some of the most privileged campuses– Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Berkeley, Oberlin – have been in the forefront of campaigns that focus attention to the emotional harms suffered by students from a variety of alleged causes.

The reason why the current generation appears to behave differently from their predecessor has little to do with their socio-economic background. Rather the sense of emotional fragility expressed by some undergraduates is the outcome of the prevailing ethos of socialization that treats young people as children.

The socialization of young people has become increasingly reliant on therapeutic techniques that have the perverse effect of encouraging children and youth to interpret existential problems as psychological ones. The concern with children’s emotions has fostered a climate where many young people are continually educated to understand the challenges they face through the language of mental health. Not surprisingly, they often feel find it difficult to acquire the habit of independence and make the transition to forms of behavior associated with the exercise of autonomy.

The complex emotional tensions that are integral to the process of growing up are now discussed as stressful events with which children and young people cannot be expected to cope. Yet is through dealing with such emotional upheavals that young people learn to manage risks and gain an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Instead of being encouraged to acquire an aspiration for independence, many youngsters are subject to influences that promote childish behavior. The infantilization of young people is the unintended outcome of parenting practices that rely on levels of support and supervision that are more suitable for much younger children.

The relations of dependence that are nurtured through these practices serve to prolong adolescence to the point that many young people in their 20s do not perceive themselves as adults. Whereas in the past infantilization was classically associated with the phenomenon of maternal overprotection, today the prolongation of adolescence is culturally sanctioned. In the case of universities, it is institutionally enforced.

Socialization through validation

The erosion of the line that divides secondary from higher education is a trend that contradicts the ethos of academic teaching and the vocation associated with it. In theory, the ideals associated with the university remain widely affirmed, but in practice, they are often tested by the introduction of conventions that were formerly confined to secondary education. The adoption of paternalistic practices and the wider tendency towards the infantilization of campus life can in part be understood as an outcome of the difficulties that society has encountered in the socialization of young people.

For some time now it has been evident that parents and schools have been struggling with the transmission of values and rules of behavior to young people. In part, this problem was caused by the lack confidence of older generations in the values into which it was socialized. More broadly, Western society has become estranged from the values that used to inspire it in the past and found it difficult to provide its adult members with a compelling narrative for socialization.

The hesitant and defensive manner with which the task of socialization is pursued has created a demand for new ways of influencing children. The growing remission of child protection and the widening of the territory for parenting activities can be interpreted as an attempt to develop new methods for guiding children.

Lack of clarity about the transmission of values has led to a search for alternatives. The adoption of the practices of behavior management serves as one influential approach towards solving the problem of socialization.  These psychological techniques of expert-directed behavior management have had an important influence on childrearing. From this standpoint, the role of parents is not so much to transmit values but to validate the feelings, attitudes and accomplishment of their children.

Though parents still do their best to transmit their beliefs and ideals to their children, there is a perceptible shift from instilling values to the provision of validation. Affirming children and raising their self-esteem is a project that is actively promoted by parents as well as schools. This emphasis on validation has run in tandem with the custom of a risk-averse regime of child-rearing. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has described this form of childrearing as that of “fearful parenting.” He claims that since the 1980s, children have been “protected as fragile,” which has the perverse consequence of undermining their capacity for resilience.

As I noted in my study, Paranoid Parenting, the (unintended) consequence of this regime of parenting has been to limit opportunities for the cultivation of independence and to extend the phase of dependence of young people on adult society. The extension of the phase of dependence is reinforced by the considerable difficulties that society has in providing young people with a persuasive account of what it means to be an adult. Instead of encouraging new undergraduates to embark on a life of independent study, universities have adopted a paternalistic ethos that treats them as biologically mature children. In this way, they have helped create a campus culture that discourages young people from embarking on the path to adulthood.

A Conservative Path to Higher Ed Reform

This is an edited transcript of comments delivered by Mr. Kelly at the 2015 Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Symposium on “The Future of Higher Education” June 3 in Washington D.C.The event was co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and National Affairs. You can read the full transcript of the symposium here.

Three trends are complicating reform of higher education.

First, tuition has been trouncing family incomes and has grown faster than just about every other good or service in the economy as well.

Second, the wages recent college graduates earn have been flat or declining for quite a while. This is important because it means that people are paying more for a degree that in absolute terms is actually not worth as much as it used to be. It is worse for people who have some college and no degree. They earn even less. They look a lot like high school graduates these days.

The problem is we have a lot of dropouts, as anybody who has looked at graduation rates can attest. So if you started at a two-year public, just 40% of students finish with some kind of credential — associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, certificate – within six years. This is for the 2008 cohort, the most recent data available. It is from the National Student Clearinghouse.

It is not much better at four-year publics. It is higher, but we still have a little less than 40% of people who are not finishing or credentialed within six years and again, taking on debt.

You add up trend one and trend two and you have a lot of struggling borrowers. These are numbers from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2013. They looked at who was actively repaying their loans when payment was due. And essentially, what happens is people who are in school or in the grace period don’t have to repay. But if we include them all on the denominator then actually the rate of default or forbearance looks better than it actually is. But if you look — I mean, 40% of people were not actively repaying down their loans in this latest cohort.

We have trend one, we have trend two, and we usually stop there. And we start asking, is college worth it? And then based on the cost and returns many people have concluded no, it is no longer worth it. It is too expensive and you don’t get much for it.

But this is where the third trend comes in–that high-school graduates have had it even worse than college graduates have. Their job prospects have dimmed considerably since the 1970s, in large part due to hollowing out of middle-skill jobs and manufacturing.

The wage premium attached to college is down, but the wage premium between earnings of a college graduate and the earnings of a high-school graduate have actually increased over time. The same is true for associate’s degrees.

This sets up what I call the college conundrum: that some education after high school — associate’s degrees, certificates, technical training, some kind of education post-high school — has become more important to economic mobility, but it is also more expensive than ever before, and it is also riskier than before because it is both more expensive, and completion rates have actually declined over time.

This creates what I call the Enterprise Rent-A-Car problem. If you’ve watched college sports on TV, you’ve seen the commercials. Enterprise prides itself on hiring college graduates. And during college games, they profile former athletes who work and run their rental-car counters. So some of us see that, and I myself say, gosh, four years of college to run a rental car counter? College isn’t worth it any more, is it?

But for some parents, particularly in middle-income and working-class families, it is a much more terrifying proposition: my kids can’t even work at Enterprise Rent-A-Car if they don’t go to college.

And so harping on the fact that too many kids are going to college, I think, is tone-deaf. Tone-deaf to the anxieties of the middle class. And this is why it is a defining middle-class issue. People feel trapped. They can’t afford to go to college and they can’t afford not to; the cost of both have increased.

How did we get here? I’ll march through four problems quickly. The first is that we have a third-party-payer system and easy credit.

So federal aid, student aid programs started out with a noble purpose. There were poor people who could benefit from higher education but couldn’t get access to it because they faced financial barriers. It was targeted, it was need based.

This has now turned into a large entitlement for anybody with a high school diploma and, in fact, for parents of anybody who attends college. In the 1970’s we made upper- and middle-class and then eventually upper-income families eligible for federal loans. They used to be need-based then we sort of opened the floodgates in the late 70s. That is why you see that increase in tuition among private colleges in the early 80s.

In the 1980s, we opened up the loan program to parents. In the 1990s, we made that parent-loan program; we took away the annual limits on how much you could borrow. Now you can get unlimited borrowing up to the cost of attendance. As long as you have a kid in college, you can borrow money to defray the costs.

In the 1990s, we created a host of tax benefits that disproportionately benefit upper-income families. And then in the 2000s we created a federal graduate student-loan program that allows, again, graduate students to borrow up to the cost of attendance unlimited amounts. If you continue to enroll in graduate school, you can borrow as much as you want.

As somebody who took eight years to finish my Ph.D., I know that the incentive is not there to really finish your studies as quickly if you have access to these credit programs.

I think it is really important, though, to distinguish here for the purposes of thinking about tuition inflation and the perverse incentives between programs here. So I think it is important to focus in particular on the loan program. And within the loan programs on the parent-plus and grad-plus programs which have unlimited borrowing up to the cost of attendance.

Stafford loans for dependent students: you can only borrow up to $31,000 over the course of your career, which is a substantial sum of money.

So we spent a lot, particularly over the past decade or so. The Obama administration has both increased the size of the Pell Grant program, spent a lot more on it, and increased the size of federal tax benefits. And people are borrowing a lot more.

A lot of this has to do with the bump in enrollment. More people are going to college. But we are also spending more per person in federal aid.

Here is what we have to show for it over that decade: the net price of attendance for middle-income families has gone up considerably. This is the net price as a percentage of your income. So if you are a middle-income family with a son or daughter attending a private four-year college, you’re paying nearly 40% of your income after taking account of grants and scholarships; public doesn’t look much better.

What is the theory of action here? As far as I can tell, it is subsidize, watch tuition rise and subsidize some more. It’s like trying to bail out a boat with a Dixie cup. So pouring money into a system with misaligned incentives is not going to change the incentives.

Problem number two: we have inadequate quality assurance. There is almost no underwriting on federal loans. You get the same terms whether you are going to Harvard, Joe’s Barber College, or Jay’s Technical School. So lots of federal money flows to bad colleges.

This is from a study that I did where I looked at where student-loan dollars for undergrads went according to the school’s graduation rate. So 37% of our loan disbursements go to places that have graduation rates under 40%.

The regulatory triad, which is the three-pronged approach to regulating higher-ed — that is the federal government, accreditation agencies, and state governments –, is an ineffective gatekeeper when it comes to eligibility for federal aid. It also has a bunch of other problems.

The main rule that the federal government has to hold schools accountable is called the Cohort Default Rate. It says that if more than 40% of your students default on their loans within three years after they stop attending, whether they graduate or not, then you are kicked out of the program.

I said this to an audience of finance people in New York and they like could not contain their laughter. A 40% default rate on a financial product is unheard of. But as long as you are below the threshold and as long as people don’t default within that three-year window you are held harmless. So just eight institutions were subject to sanction in 2011. We don’t know whether they were actually sanctioned. It is really hard to find any kind of information on that.

Accreditation plays a role here—this is essentially a process of peer review. It is built on a conflict of interest. Faculty from the neighboring college down the street come and review your programs and say hey, you look a lot like us and this looks great, you know, you are approved. Terrific. So no surprise, the GAO did a study of this, they found that only eight percent of schools were sanctioned and just one percent lost their accreditation.

We know there are a lot of bad colleges. We know that there are more than one percent. Bad colleges maintain access to federal aid.

Problem number three, we have imperfect consumer information. In the Atlantic, a friend and colleague of mine said, wouldn’t it be great if we had a nutrition-facts approach to college? It would just warn you, if you are going to take on a lot of debt, you are not going to earn anything, and you are not going to graduate, just be careful.

So limited ability to judge cost and quality blunts market discipline. People can’t effectively vote with their feet. Colleges can promise you all sort of things. You have no way to validate whether their promises are accurate and you continue to invest in bad programs.

Problem four–a big one–is that the existing system creates barriers to entry, not allowing competitors in to offer a better product at a lower price.

So right now, thanks to advances in technology, colleges are moving from a logic of scarcity to one of abundance. In the past it made sense to bundle things together, because smart people were scarce and books were scarce and talented students were scarce, so we brought them all together in one place on one campus. And we rationed access to that; we couldn’t have everybody coming in.

But thanks to advances in technology, Proctor U will allow you to take an exam from your own house. It will monitor whether you are cheating or not. It will make sure you are not sort of looking up the answers on the internet. Mozilla Open Badges, anybody can go on there and create an open badge with assessments attached to it that says you have completed this task and here are the skills they proved in completing it; EdX and Udacity, two of the massive open online course providers; and then General Assembly, which is not online at all, it is an in-person immersive set of courses on web development and different kinds of professions. All these things are operating on the periphery. But guess what, the accreditation system keeps new entrants out, acts as a moat; it just says, nope, sorry, you are not coming in here. You don’t look like a college. You haven’t attracted enough students for us to approve you. You don’t award degrees. If you don’t award degrees you can’t get degrees or certificates, can’t be accredited.

So what happens is accredited schools can get access to federal aid, these guys can’t, so if you are a student and you are choosing between paying out of pocket for something versus paying nothing, getting a free education at the community college down the street, you are often going to choose the free option.

Faced with these problems, what has been the progressive response? It has been more of the same tired answer. Now we’ve moved on to expanding income base for payment programs and loan forgiveness. This is one of my favorites; this is one of those companies that advertises that you pay them and they help you access federal programs that you are entitled to anyway.

But this is what’s happened. So income-base for payments says if you qualify to pay your loan payments to your income, you are going to pay 10% of your income and then after 20 years we are going to forgive your loans. If you go into the public sector, we will forgive your loans after ten years. And public sector by the way includes non-profits like my own and others; so very loose definition of public-sector forgiveness.

The best part is this: guess who is eligible for loan forgiveness and income- based payment–graduate students who have access to unlimited borrowing. So graduate-school tuition goes through the roof. And, as taxpayers, we start paying for all that loan forgiveness.

Loan refinancing, Elizabeth Warren’s proposal, would allow everybody to refinance at lower rates—a massive, inefficient program that would not target the money to the borrowers who need help the most.

There has been a repeated call for increased state spending, also progressive responses to regulate more. The Obama administration spent a long time trying to regulate colleges more heavily with gainful employment first of all for the for-profit colleges and college ratings.

And now people hear about the free-college proposal and they say oh, that is free college and what does that have to do with regulation? Well if you read it carefully and you read the ideas carefully you see this is a move away from a market where people can take their voucher to any provider they want, public, private, for-profit and a move to direct federal control, direct federal funding of institutions. Conservative reformers need to resist this wholeheartedly.

So what can we do? So four solutions I’ll zip through them quickly.

We need to give colleges a great stake in student success. We do this by giving colleges skin in the game.

Colleges essentially originate loans. You can’t get a student loan unless you are affiliated with a college and you enroll there, but they bear none of the risk if you fail. Only if you get near that threshold do you bear any of that risk.

This proposal would put colleges on the hook for a share of the loans their students aren’t repaying. They’d have to think twice about enrolling people they know that are not going to be successful. They have to think about offering a lot of programs that are not going to lead to good jobs. It sets a basic standard, but colleges have the flexibility to make it. It is not a top-down regulatory approach that says you have to do the following things to improve. It says we are going to hold you to this standard and you are going to have to get there.

We need power consumers with better data on costs, outcome and value. Those are public goods in my opinion. They help the market work. They help serve taxpayer interests and family interests. So in my opinion the feds are sui generis in their ability to collect these data. States could try, but in terms of return on investment and how do people fare in the labor market. States can collect some of it. And some of them are doing it. But they can’t follow people across state lines. So it’s an inefficient approach.

And you can prevent misuse by legislating prohibitions. And I think the key here is to collect these data, open it up to a set of third parties that can make lots of customized rankings and ratings, actually measure what colleges do, not just the selectivity of their admissions process. That is how we rank colleges now. We say, oh, how good were the undergraduates that you brought in? How good are your inputs?

Three, we need to lower barriers to entry. We have an opportunity to redefine what education looks like, who can offer it. We’ve done this a lot in the past. We created land-grant colleges, community colleges, research universities. We’ve been through rounds of reinvention and the problem right now is we are just showing a tremendous lack of imagination as a policymaking community.

My idea is to create a parallel path. Think about the charter school movement. Charter school policy allows new entrants into the markets to offer the same product. The horse trade would apply there too; organizations that want access to this new pathway would get more flexibility about how they offer education in return for transparency and accountability.

And then last, we need to create space for private financing. The idea that we’ve proposed before is what is called an income-share agreement where investors would front the money for education in return for a fixed percentage of somebody’s future income over a fixed period of time.

What does that do? Well, it aligns the incentives of the lenders or the funders with the incentive of the students. The funders only reap a return if the students are successful. So the funders are going to help people navigate toward programs that are likely to lead to a positive return on investment and so on.

But critically, we need to resolve important regulatory and legal questions around the enforceability of these contracts and where would it be, which institution would regulate at the federal level so there is a federal role here for policymakers. So those are four big ideas. I look forward to discussing them.

Andrew Kelly is a resident scholar in education policy studies and the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). 

Millennials Not Ready for the Job Market

Millennial workers have had it rough in recent years, coming of age during the Great Recession and experiencing higher levels of unemployment and underemployment than older generations.

A new study finds that Millennials, who will dominate the U.S. labor market for the next 50 years, may face another problem: They’re less prepared for today’s job market than many of their international peers, putting them (and the country) at a distinct disadvantage in an increasingly global economy.

Related: The Closing of the Millennial Mind on Campus​​

A recent report by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) examined data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC), which showed that American millennials are badly lagging behind in numeracy, literacy and problem-solving skills. Experts can only speculate on the reason for the skills gap, but the report warns that the consequences of such relatively low scores could be serious for American competiveness and could have an impact on the U.S. both socially and politically.

The study shows that even our top-performing millennials are not measuring up to their counterparts overseas. Further, the gap between America’s highest- and lowest-performing workers is among the largest.  The study suggests that such a disparity can lead to dire consequences, including “mistrust in government, decreased civic engagement, increased rates of incarceration, poor health, obesity, addiction and more”

“We did not do well across the board in all three of the skills that we looked into, particularly in numeracy,” said Madeline Goodman, director of research at the ETS and one of the study’s co-authors, adding that the report presents troubling implications for the future of American competiveness.

Nearly two-thirds of millennials scored below the minimum standard in math. “If these individuals are going to be trained for jobs that have remuneration … then they need to have basic skill level” she said.

Related: The Surprising Reason College Grads Can’t Get a Job

Among the 22 participating countries, U.S millennials 18 to 34 years old ranked 21st in numeracy — only Spanish millennials had lower scores. In literacy, half scored below the minimum proficiency level, ahead of only Spain and Italy.  For problem solving in technology-rich environments, 56 percent of American millennials met the minimum standards, behind every other nation.

That’s a problem for U.S. employers, more than two-thirds of whom look for communication, problem-solving and quantitative skills in their new hires, according to a report last year by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Even so, employers expect to hire more new college grads this year than they did last year, according to a NACE report released earlier this month.

One of the central paradoxes of the ETS study is that the millennial generation is our most educated, and the study’s authors make the case that many post-secondary institutions are not adequately providing students with the skills necessary to be successful in the job market.  The financial loan burden to pay for this education can also be crippling.

Related: ‘Irresponsible’ Millennials Saving More Than Almost Every Other Group

“These results are suggesting that a significant chunk of Americans will have trouble moving up in the labor market and getting out of lower-wage jobs,” says Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy.

The skills gap may be having an impact on productivity and growth, and federal educational programs such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have not produced the needed results, Holzer says.

Holzer adds that Americans may need to revaluate the way they obtain these skills, and suggests that post-secondary education should not mean only a bachelor’s or  associate’s degree. Upgrading America’s technical education schooling, including certificate programs in such high-demand fields as IT and health tech, may give young people entrée to high demand middle class jobs. He compares American millennials to Germans, where many high school graduates can already solve complex technical problems.

Mark Schneider, vice-president and Institute Fellow at The American Institutes for Research, is also critical of American universities, many of which he believes don’t equip students with the skills they need to function in the workplace or the wider community.  He calls most college educations “too long, too expensive” and says the liberal arts skills that they provide are not marketable

Related: 11 Ridiculous College Courses You Won’t Believe

Even so, international comparisons like the PIAAC underestimate the diversity of the U.S. economy, which is more dynamic than higher-scoring countries like Finland or Japan, which has been mired in economic dysfunction for decades.

Still, he is disturbed by the PIACC results that show our top ten percent performers as mediocre compared to other nations. “It is a sobering lesson and worrisome that our top is really not high enough,” says Schneider. “We need to think carefully about investing more resources in gifted and talented programs.”

Schneider is a proponent of finding ways to provide students shorter and cheaper methods of obtaining marketable skills, such as technical training, associate degrees, certifications, apprenticeships, mid-career training, competency-based and online education.

A separate study released last year by Bentley University found that nearly three-quarters of hiring managers complain that millennials—even those with college degrees—aren’t prepared for the job market and lack an adequate “work ethic.”

That study found that in addition to hiring managers, businesspeople, corporate recruiters, academics and others agreed that recent college graduates deserve a grade of “C” or lower for preparedness for their first job.

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed considered that lack of readiness “a real problem,” and 62 percent said it has an impact on day-to-day productivity.

David Koeppel is a writer for The Fiscal Times, where this article was originally published.


Completing a college education, people have long presumed, shows that a young adult has not just mastered a particular subject but has broadened his or her intellect by exposure to many different disciplines, philosophies, and diverse approaches to both knowledge and life.

A successful college education replaces ignorance with insight, and insularity with confidence and engagement. With the escalating price and debt loads from tuition becoming a crippling fiscal burden to young adults, delivering on those values becomes more important than ever to their economic survival.

Unfortunately, most of our universities and colleges end up promoting ignorance, insularity, fear, and infantilism. Rather than seek out heterodox opinions, the faculties and student bodies of these schools attempt to insulate themselves from opponents through speech codes, demands for “trigger warnings,” demagoguery and shouting down of alternate views. Instead of education producing open minds, these institutions end up indoctrinating young adults on how best to keep their minds closed, limited to the boundaries of groupthink rather than freed to pursue truth.

Three incidents this week demonstrate the gap between education and indoctrination. Oberlin College in Ohio and Georgetown University in Washington DC both had groups invite Christina Hoff Sommers, a conservative critic of the current version of feminism, to speak on their campuses. Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, composes a weekly video blog called the Factual Feminist, and most of her work challenges both the assumptions and conclusions of “third-wave” feminism, especially as practiced on college campuses.

Much of what Sommers writes aims to counter the arguments that have become treated as unconditional truths, but which do not stand up to empirical tests. Those assumptions include the oft-cited  and roundly debunked claim that one in five women on American college have been or will be victims of sexual assault during their student careers, or that women only earn 78 cents on the dollar compared to men. Both of these continue to be promoted not just by campus activists but also by the White House, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The Department of Justice’s own data actually suggests that colleges and universities are slightly safer than the US at large when it comes to sexual assault, and the rate of those attacks on campus is six for every 1,000 people, or 0.6 percent. Even if only one in five attacks get reported, then the rate would be 2.4 percent rather than 20 percent.

Needless to say, this pushback on popular feminist narratives hasn’t endeared Sommers to activists at these schools. In an environment with free and open dialogue – a college campus, say, which most Americans would have assumed qualified for the task – Sommers’ opponents would have offered a spirited debate on these topics and statistics.

They could also have invited their own speakers to campus to make their own arguments without any challenge to them. Instead, students at both schools encouraged their colleagues to declare themselves victims, provided shelter from opposing points of view on the basis of Sommers’ ideas being somehow “unsafe,” and made it clear that they’d prefer to see Sommers speak elsewhere.

At Oberlin, activists authored an essay in the student newspaper calling her a “rape denialist” and accusing her of encouraging violence against women.  At both colleges, protesters plastered “trigger warnings” around the campuses near the venues where Sommers spoke. At both campuses, students complained that having Sommers speak at their schools created an “unsafe” environment for them, which necessitated the establishment of “safe spaces” to deal with the discomfort of having their assumptions challenged.

Ironically, the point of feminism had once been that women didn’t need paternalistic protection from life provided to them by male-dominated institutions. Sommers herself noted the contradiction between feminism and “trigger warnings” in her most recent vlog entry prior to her appearances at Oberlin and Georgetown. Not only do they have “no basis in scientific fact,” Sommers explains, but they “convey the idea that women are helpless children, delicate little injured birds who can’t cope with clapping,” let alone any sort of debate or challenge.

Even the good news comes freighted with recognition of the scope of the issue. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) announced earlier this week that after almost a decade of engagement with George Mason University, the school had finally agreed to dump its speech codes in favor of unfettered free debate. “Freedom of speech and academic freedom are core values of a university’s mission,” said GMU Foundation Professor of Law Todd Zywicki. “I’m delighted that George Mason has joined the ranks of universities that have committed themselves to the full protection of free speech.”

Unfortunately, the ranks of universities aligning their policies to those core values remains very low indeed. GMU became only the 20th school to get a green light rating from FIRE, having been preceded by William & Mary and the University of Virginia – which Rolling Stone recently smeared in its publication of fabulism about rape culture on campuses.

FIRE has rated 437 colleges and universities in the US for their commitment to free speech on campus, spokesman Nico Perrino informed me in an e-mail. Over half of those earn a red light (where policies explicitly restrict speech), and another 39 percent get a yellow rating (policies which can be applied to restrict speech). Perrino said that FIRE is currently working with another 29 schools to support free speech fully, but even if they all converted tomorrow, it would still mean that only 11.2 percent of those rated campuses actually gives students the right to express themselves openly and have access to a broad range of opinion.

The tantrums thrown by students at Oberlin and Georgetown, and the endorsement of speech restraints and indoctrination by school administrators, remain the rule rather than the exception. That prompts the question: what value are these students actually gaining for their mortgaging of their financial futures?

Better yet, considering that student loans primarily get backed by taxpayers, what outcomes will we see from this investment in social and monetary capital? We are creating a generation of “delicate little injured birds” whose only developed skill involves curling up into a ball at the first sign of adverse experience. Perhaps we should invest in trade school education instead.