PJ Media

Want Education Reform? Start With Higher Ed

Every crisis, as Rahm Emanuel once hinted, brings with it some unique opportunities. The need for drastic cuts in Texas’s higher education spending could be an opportunity for conservatives to rethink what they’re doing in fundamental ways, building the foundation for a leaner but more effective and freer higher education system. The “fat” years that higher ed has enjoyed over the last two decades — with spending up 74% per student since 1991 — have obscured the fact that the system is badly broken. Conservatives have tended to focus on the failings of K-12, but higher ed is both more wasteful and more dysfunctional. Consider:

  • Left-wing ideologues are firmly in control of the humanities and liberal arts. Every study over the last 25 years has demonstrated that college education produces a huge shift to the left in social and political attitudes. (See, for example, How College Affects Students, by Pascarella and Terenzini.) In nearly every classroom, leftist profs browbeat students with the message that the heritage of Western civilization is evil and that America’s foundations are morally corrupt. More importantly, college is where the left recruits and develops its leadership. If we’re going to get serious about de-funding the left, the universities are the place to start, since they play a far larger role than NPR or the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Students spend less and less time studying, and they are not being challenged to think, speak or write. As documented in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a recent book by scholars from NYU and Virginia, higher education is not producing measurable improvements in cognitive or communicative skills. Students spend only 12 hours a week studying. Fewer than half of seniors completed a total of 20 pages of writing in the previous semester. And 45% experienced no significant improvement in academic skills over four years. Profs pretend to teach, students pretend to study, and the taxpayer picks up the bill.
  • More and more resources are being spent on research, and fewer and fewer on undergraduate teaching. This research, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is almost entirely pure waste, as Mark Bauerlein’s work has demonstrated. Professors publish more and more articles read by ever fewer peers and cited by even fewer — none of which has anything to do with improving the minds or lives of students.
  • The overemphasis on narrow research programs leaves students with an incoherent potpourri of random bits of knowledge, in place of a truly liberal education in “the best that has been written and thought.” See Heather Wilson’s recent piece in The Washington Post about “our superficial scholars.” Our “core curriculum” is a farce: nothing but distribution rules requiring students to accumulate an arbitrary number of narrowly specialized courses, such as vampire novels, Brazilian cinema, or the history of hip-hop.

There’s a simple solution to all four of these problems: return to the fundamental principles of competition and free choice. Let students vote with their feet. There are many fine private and religious colleges in Texas (Baylor, University of Dallas, Houston Baptist, and University of St. Thomas, among others) that do a great job of focusing on the education of undergraduates and that treat our American and Judeo-Christian heritage with respect.
Conservatives have tried unsuccessfully for years to pass vouchers for K-12. We already have vouchers for private colleges right now, in the form of Tuition Equalization Grants. Sadly, the GOP leaders in the House and Senate plan to gut the TEGs by 60% — in order, bizarrely, to protect the inflated earnings of the leftist administrators and professors who trash conservative values and principles on a daily basis. (They’ll suffer only a 7% cut.)

The leadership has it exactly backwards: let’s slash the general appropriations for state universities by 40-60% (that’s 8-10% of their operating budgets), freeze state tuition rates, and fully fund both Tuition Equalization (with private colleges) and TEXAS grants (with state schools) for all students who are adequately prepared for college.

At the same time, let’s pass a constitutional amendment diverting money from the Permanent University Fund to student scholarships, instead of squandering it all on the wasteful over-building of bricks and mortar in the age of the Internet.

We can also require state universities to encourage real competition and effective student choice within their campuses. Simply tie money to the number of students taught by each department and professor. As things stand now, there is no relation between the two. Some disciplines, like philosophy and Spanish, teach thousands of students with a handful of professors, while politically favored programs, like ethnic and gender studies, have abundant resources and few students. Professors now think of students as a burden and a nuisance to be avoided, not as a constituency to be attracted and served. Tying pay to students taught, even at the margins, would transform the culture overnight.

An even better step? Let each department discount its tuition rate on its courses, using price competition to rein in costs.

The competition will spur improvements in education at the state schools, which can easily raise the quality of instruction while cutting back wasteful spending on administrators, research, and unneeded student services. The increased aid going to directly to students, along with more choice and improved offerings at both private and public colleges, will win support for the GOP from the rising generation — support Republicans can hardly do without.