The Best Higher-Education System in the World

by Peter Augustine Lawler

A lot of people asked me: What should we do about Middlebury?

My answer (in most cases): Well, if you don’t want you kids stuck in a privileged elite bubble for four years, don’t send them there. And it’s easy to qualify: If they do go, they’re probably tough enough to hold their own in an unfriendly environment and still learn plenty of stuff from Middlebury’s gifted professors in literature, philosophy, political science, and so forth.

Meanwhile, don’t forget that nobody has more choice at the college level than American kids. You can find pretty much whatever you want (if you’re savvy enough) at a very reasonable price. Forget those stories about huge indebtedness and all that. Those poor people were suckers. The American residential college is stuck with the fact that the category of consumers looking for “the residential-college experience” is shrinking. And the elite schools are often getting more guilty about their eliteness and comping all students below a certain income level. The sticker prices of our colleges are ridiculous, but at many or most places the average discount rate is about 50 percent. It turns out the savvy consumer has a huge menu of choice with surprisingly reasonable prices.

Unlike insurance or even secondary school, most of our institutions of higher education inhabit a national market; they try to recruit students from all over. You want Middlebury or Oberlin? Or St. Johns (Annapolis or Santa Fe) or Thomas Aquinas? Texas A&M or the Citadel? Christendom or Yeshiva? Berea or Lindsey Wilson (the worker colleges)? Hillsdale or Seattle Pacific? Notre Dame or BYU? Wabash or Agnes Scott Morehouse or Hampden-Sydney? I could go on and on. What other country has that kind of diversity? And look at that list! It’s actually quality diversity. The truth is that Americans typically surge in college after falling behind other countries in high school, even with the political correctness, grade inflation, ridiculous amenities, and so forth.

Also note that, at least for now, all those colleges are free to choose their own missions and be fully accredited.

Now it’s also true that this market, like most markets, serves only those who are prepared to benefit from us. One thing Secretary DeVos could do is incentivize all our secondary schools to make students aware of what’s available to them. Far too many of our kids not attending elite public or private schools are simply unaware of what this or that college would actually cost for them.

It’s also true, of course, that our best high schools are better than ever, but most of them seem to be getting worse. I have no universal solution to that inequity at the moment. Vouchers and charters might be the ticket some places, but far from everywhere.

And certainly critics are right that it’s a crime that so many students now have to pay to go to college just to learn the knowledge and skills most Americans routinely picked up for free in high school.

But here’s something else our country has that the others don’t. Community colleges! Everyone is offered a second chance — usually not for free, but typically for a very affordable price. If your high school is a giant warehouse, take the GED (really easy!) and move on to the community college in your town or county. Conservatives shouldn’t worry much about what goes on there. The hugely practical mission of those places — and the vocational devotion of so many who teach the truly disadvantaged — usually guarantees that there’s no time for the privileging whining of our elitists and their identity politics. One thing philanthropists should be doing is underwriting centers of excellence at community colleges — beginning with the one down the street. They’re already doing that at our otherwise undistinguished large state universities — such as the cattle barons and such who fund the wonderful Honors College at the University of Houston.

If you really take advantage of the community-college opportunity, then you only have two years of college left. And your “residential experience” will be half-price. Well, much less than half price, if you did well or are without means. Even the better colleges have “retention issues” that only discounting transfer students can reliably solve.

Now, I’m not denying that this diversity is under siege from various standardizing and homogenizing forces. The main job of a conservative administration is to make sure that government regulation is not one of those forces. When it comes to accreditation and so forth, we conservatives favor libertarian means for non-libertarian ends.

When it comes to achieving a uniform standard of excellence, American education, including higher education, is far from the best in the world. For us, a critic might say, excellence is quite the lifestyle option, and so, for us, it’s largely the child of the safe spaces offered by our protection of moral and intellectual diversity — not so much within a particular institution as among institutions. But, as anyone who’s read Tocqueville should know, the imposition of uniformity in a middle-class democracy achieves, at best, a leveling mediocrity. And certainly that’s what our experts, who want to redefine all of higher education with the twin standards of competency and diversity in mind, really have in mind. Let’s do what we can to keep them from scripting us all. For anti-scripting strategies, please see my American Heresies and Higher Education.

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