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.