Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Higher Ed’s Myth-busting Duo Strikes Again


In 2011, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift dropped a bombshell on the world of higher education. That book highlighted, with a bundle of empirical evidence in support, that many students can pass through undergraduate programs without having enhanced their overall knowledge and skill set. They may have paid a lot for their education, but they didn’t receive much in return. 

This year, the authorial twosome is back with the release of Aspiring Adults Adrift, which George Leef reviews in this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call article. Arum and Roksa track the same cohort of students who participated in their previous study. Many of those graduates are now underemployed or living with their parents. 

The duo’s latest study also reveals that the career prospects for those attending a prestigious college are no better than those of students attending non-prestigious institutions. Leef describes the book and the authors’ findings as a “cold shower for the ‘We’ve got to put more young people through college!’ crowd.” 

We Have Flawed Higher Ed Data -- Reason for Worry?


Ben Miller, a senior analyst at the New America Foundation, writes about The College Graduation Rate Flaw That No One’s Talking About. The flaw is that it is hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons of graduation or “attainment” rates across institutions. This is exactly the sort of problem that central planning types fret about. Without good data, how can they run things the best way? Instead of worrying about imperfect higher education data, I suggest that we just stop collecting it.

Terribly heretical idea, what! But people also thought it heretical when Hong Kong’s financial secretary, the estimable Sir John Cowperthwaite, not just suggested stopping the collection of economic data, but actually did so. His reason was that statistics were invariably used by meddlesome politicians to interfere with the economy, so it would be better not to have any for them to use. Exactly the same applies to higher ed data. They encourage politicians and policy wonks to devise ways of “improving” outcomes, such as rewarding schools with “good” graduation rates and punishing those with “bad” rates. Instead of deepening the government’s already extensive and harmful interference with higher education, we should go back toward laissez-faire. If students were spending their own money on education, they would care about their own stats and the rest of us could think about other things.

For readers who are not familiar with Sir John Cowperthwaite, I recommend this tribute to him by Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy.


Don’t Know Much about History


A few organizations are trying to get colleges to retain some kind of core curriculum. The American Council for Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) is one of those, and it has just issued its 2014-2015 ratings of colleges on the basis of their required courses.

At, you can find the ACTA grades (A-F) or 1,098 schools. Only 23 schools get As. To do so, they must require students to take at least six out of the seven courses that ACTA establishes as necessary for a good education. Those are: economics, foreign language, U.S. history or government, literature, math, composition, and science.

Some interesting statistics emerge: only 13 percent of the schools surveyed require a foreign language, and only 18 percent U.S. history or government. Only 3 percent require economics.

I’ve heard the former president of a selective college say somewhat disdainfully that his students should have learned enough about U. S. history and government by the time they arrive as freshmen, so they shouldn’t be required to take such a course. If that’s the case (and it’s dubious), then they should place out through an exam. But don’t deprive a student of essential education on the theory that he or she already knows it!

College a “Ludicrous Waste”? I Spar with Gary Burtless


Notwithstanding the plight of a great many young Americans who have gone to college, perhaps obtained a degree, possibly learned little of any use, and now work at low-skill jobs, we still hear rousing cheers from defenders of the “College is still a good investment” crowd. In a recent piece riffing on one of Robert Reich’s columns, Brookings Institution senior fellow Gary Burtless proclaimed that college is Not a Ludicrous Waste of Money. In my latest SeeThruEdu piece, I take issue with him.

His case for college is the negative one that even though many college grads are in bad shape, on the whole, Americans without degrees are even worse off. It’s a positional argument, not one based on any intrinsic benefit of the college experience. The problem with this argument is two fold. First, lots of young Americans, especially those with scant academic engagement, will spend a lot of time and money and still end up with a mundane job and poor career prospects. Second, encouraging them to go to college encourages credential mania to accelerate. Already, a BA is insufficient for many jobs once capably done by individuals with high school educations.

My Favorite Headlines



Disgusted Alumna Looks at NYU


If you look back 40 years or so, higher education was a lot different than it is today. Among the differences is that whereas college presidents used to be serious academics who focused on improving (or at least maintaining) intellectual integrity, now they are often empire buildings who are mainly interested in raising tons of money to spend on whatever enhances the institution’s prestige. They rake in money, lavish some on themselves and the rest on high-profile projects such as overseas campuses.

A good example is New York University. In her recent Chronicle Review piece, “NYU Eats World,” one of the university’s alumna, Claudia Dreifus, offers up a strong indictment of NYU under John Sexton’s presidency. She writes, “Like so many American universities today, NYU has no discernable center, no real purpose, except growth and a better spot on the US News rankings. The university attempts anything and everything — new programs, new buildings, new schools, new types of perks for its stars. No one seems to ask, ‘Can the students afford this?’ Or, better yet, ‘Is this wise?’”

I recommend reading the whole piece.

Claudia Dreifus is the co-author, with Andrew Hacker of an excellent 2010 book entitled Higher Education? I reviewed the book for the Pope Center, and when we hosted an event in 2011 on the way the “liberal” and “conservative” criticism of higher education often dovetail, she was among the speakers.

In my view, the Sextons of the higher education world were able to get away with turning their institutions into fiefdoms for their glorification and the lining of their pockets because they were liberals in good standing and thus mostly immune from attack by other liberals. 

The Case for a Core Curriculum


Jay Schalin, author of two studies of university general education programs, spoke at a forum in September at North Carolina State University.

His speech, reprinted on the Pope Center site, gives reasons why today’s typical “smorgasbord” approach fails students. It lets them choose from a mass of specialized courses according to “distribution requirements and it tends toward requiring politically correct  themes

Among Schalin’s reasons for requiring a true core curriculum:

For our country is based on self-rule, and self-rule is only as good as the people participating in it. It should go without saying that making consistently wise decisions within the framework of our self-rule requires knowledge about our government, our history and our economy, and especially about the ideas that led to our founding. So the general education program should direct our attention toward these topics, not away from them as it currently does.

The University of the Offended


Campus Reform reports that the editor-in-chief of East Carolina University’s official newspaper has received death threats and a call for ISIS-style execution (seriously) over her decision to print the following rant from a student: “Will someone explain to me why there is no ‘White Student Union?’. . . I feel underrepresented.” 

Those fifteen words fomented campus-wide outrage. Hundreds of students e-mailed the editor to express their discontent. A member of ECU’s Student Government Association said that he “won’t sleep until this issue is addressed and TEC is held accountable for publishing and providing a platform [for] hate speech that is in direct opposition to the morals of this university.” The Black Student Union and the SGA even held a public forum to discuss the matter.

There’s a quote usually attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville that goes something like this: “The American Republic will endure until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.” Well, in that same rhetorical vein, free speech will endure until the majority of citizens believe that their subjective sensitivities trump open debate and expression. College campuses, which should worship at the altar of the First Amendment and encourage accessibility and exposure to provocative, dangerous, and challenging ideas, are instead sowing the seeds of political correctness and feeble-mindedness. 

And rather than gain a deep understanding of the nuts and bolts of free expression, and why it is a hallmark of any would-be free society, the “future leaders of America” are learning that their whims, their feelings, should eclipse any such first principles. 

Mea Culpa, Déja Vu


Speaking of  police (see Jesse Saffron’s post below), the police department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison had to apologize for this:

  • Be a hard target – a victim looks like a victim! If you move from one destination to another, and the only thing you recall about the trip is the last text message you received, then there’s a problem. The military calls it “keeping your head on a swivel” and it’s probably the most important thing you can do to ensure your safety. If you present yourself as easy prey, then expect to attract some wolves. If you make yourself a hard target, one who is aware of their surroundings, you take away two elements of a crime: desirability and opportunity.

Apparently only women can be prey, and especially prey to wolves, so this is discrimination–blaming the female victim.

The article at Inside Higher Ed also show how convoluted the sexual assault issue has become. One of the criticisms of the police message  was that it didn’t acknowledge that most sexual assaults on campus are made by acquaintances of the victims. A spokesman for the American Association of University Women says: “One of the things we also want to avoid is perpetuating damaging myths that don’t really acknowledge the fact that for many survivors of sexual violence, the perpetrator is someone they know.”

In other words, campuses aren’t all that dangerous and a lot of sexual assault really is “acquaintance rape” that could be reduced by better behavior on the part of the victim? Could she be saying that?

Let’s Do Away with Campus Police


That’s the argument made by criminal justice professors John Paul Wright and Kevin M. Beaver in this Chronicle of Higher Education article, and it’s a pretty convincing one. 

Campus police departments are under the sway of often highly politicized university administrations, campus cops often enforce “not laws but campus-specific policies” which encroach on free speech, and there are problems with over-and under-policing. 

“[Colleges] have created a dual system of justice, designed not by a legislature but by unelected administrators who are not accountable to the public. This system of justice, separate and unequal, leads to a highly disparate and sometimes discriminatory treatment of individuals,” say Wright and Beaver. 

I’m reminded of a recent article on Campus Reform discussing the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s efforts to turn students into confidential informants for purposes of combating drug use. This kind of activity seems wholly out of bounds for a campus police department. Then of course there are the often-publicized instances of rape and sexual assault at campuses across the country, some of which have tarnished the records of innocent individuals. And why are some campus police departments now being armed with military weaponry? 

The escalation, politicization, and misconduct of such police units is problematic, to say the least. Kudos to Wright and Beaver for offering a sensible solution to the problem: “divest” colleges of their “criminal justice obligations,” and instead encourage them to focus on safety and security. 

No Rainbow of Ideas


The Pope Center keeps tabs on public lectures given on colleges campuses in North Carolina’s Triangle region. Occasionally we find a good serious talk (such as George Nash’s upcoming lecture at Duke on Herbert Hoover’s recently discovered critique of FDR).

More often, though, we learn how astonishingly narrow the thinking is on campus.

Today, Jenna Robinson identified four lectures in one month at one school—the flagship, UNC-Chapel Hill—all of which decry capitalism. One of the lectures takes “a critical look at some assumptions undergirding our free market”: another claims that American prosperity is rooted in slavery—and there are two more.

Robinson lists them on a John Locke Foundation blog. (She found no lectures defending capitalism.)  

Students, Follow Your Passion (But Don’t Expect Your Degree to Pay Off)


Much government information collecting is pointless or worse, providing excuses for politicians to further meddle with society. Sometimes, however, such collecting is valuable and a new site called NC Tower run by the North Carolina Department of Commerce has data on the earnings of graduates of UNC system institutions by major. In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, Jenna Ashley Robinson looks into some of the most revealing data on that site.

We see, for instance, that five years after graduation, students who majored in women’s studies earn on average just $14,949. Hmmmmmm…..after five years on the job, most McDonalds or Starbucks workers make that much. Probably quite a few women’s studies majors are doing just such work.

Information like this is going to get around. When it does, students and their parents will probably ask, “Why major in something that appears to have bleak future prospects?” The old college sales pitch that just having a degree to your name ensures you a huge boost in lifetime earnings, so you might as well “follow your passion” isn’t going to persuade many students. As a result, the majors that evidently do little to equip students with knowledge and skills that help them to succeed will either need to drastically change (unlikely if not impossible in the case of the various “grievance studies” departments) or lose students. And what will a university do with majors that attract hardly any students?

Having Students Pay for College is Socially Unjust


That declaration comes from Germany, where a recent decision means that higher education will be virtually free for students. Read all about it in this NCPA piece by Farhad Mirzadeh.

Of course, the idea of “free” education (or anything else) makes leftists giddy, but Mirzadeh points out some inconvenient truths. Even though students won’t be paying, that doesn’t mean that there are no costs. In fact, costs are apt to increase now that they’ll all be borne by taxpayers, just as we have seen with healthcare. Also, there is the moral hazard problem — students are apt to change their behavior since they won’t have any reason to economize, such as dawdling around in college for five or six years.

TANSTAAFL applies to education just as much as it does to everything else. When government makes anything “free” it simply shifts the costs to other people and in doing so changes the incentives of the users.

Berkeley and the New Campus Radicals


UC Berkeley is in the midst of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, congratulating itself for birthing the cause with innocuous lectures, progressive poetry slams, reunions, nostalgic film screenings, and a rally that looked like an Occupy Wall Street throwback party.

Noticeably absent from its calendar of events is any mention of how the campus has cracked down on free speech in recent years.

Thankfully, the Berkeley College Republicans stepped up to shine a big, bright spotlight on all the hypocrisy.

On Friday, the conservative students stood at Sproul Hall with a huge banner that read “Free Speech [does not equal] Comfortable Speech.” They also handed out fliers to their peers which highlighted all the recent times in which the school’s student government acted more like the defenders of politically correct speech rather than the defenders of free speech.

In November 2013, the campus approved a student bill banning the term “illegal alien” from campus discourse, and two months prior had condemned a fraternity for “appropriating the culture” of Mexican-Americans with a quinceanera-themed party (never mind that it was Latino students who thought up the the fiesta’s theme).

In December 2012, the Berkeley student government kicked the Salvation Army off campus, saying the charity is hostile and uncomfortable, and in September 2011, it passed a bill condemning disrespectful speech. That had been prompted by the Berkeley College Republicans’ “Diversity Bake Sale,” for which the student government had also attempted to have the student group defunded.

These are examples from the flier the Berkeley College Republicans handed out Friday to hundreds of students.

“In the 1960s, students broke out from within the constraints of the status quo. They said the things parents and professors and peers were telling them not to,” wrote Berkeley College Republicans President Claire Chiara in an opinion column for The College Fix, which detailed the group’s protest. “Today, and especially on the Berkeley campus, conservative students are the ones taking a stand, and yet we’re maligned and ostracized for it.”

Enter the new campus radicals–College Republicans.

Tags: UC Berkeley , Free Speech Movement , College Republicans



On September 28, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 967, commonly referred to as the “affirmative consent” bill. It forces state-funded universities to require students to obtain “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement” before having sex. Once such agreement has been reached, it must remain “ongoing throughout a sexual activity.” 

Two opposition articles have appeared in the last few days. One comes from from Shikha Dalmia in an op-ed for The Week: “The vast majority of campus rapes are committed by a small minority of repeat offenders who give not a damn about what the woman wants. And if they can threaten violence, they can also lie about obtaining consent. So how will the law change anything?” she asks. 

And in a column published yesterday on New York Magazine’s website, Jonathan Chait says that the law is based on a desire to create “sweeping, wholesale” cultural change which most people are not going to accept anytime in the near future, and that “nobody will actually try to enforce it.”

Chait writes that, instead, “[the law] will technically deem a large portion of sexual encounters to be rape, but prosecutors will only enforce it if there is an accusation. And since most, and possibly near all, sexual encounters will legally be rape [under the new standard], then accusation will almost automatically result in conviction.” 

People crusading heedlessly against campus sexual assault confused a minor problem for an epidemic, legislators responded with a law, and now the freedom of every sexually active college student in California has been threatened. How many of the accused will be punished for a sex crime they didn’t commit?

The unintended consequences of this law could be tragic in nature. 

Lawmakers Need a Lesson on Due Process


Sadly, it often appears as if the war against due process on campus has many friends. While the bipartisan group of senators sponsoring the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, meant to address the issue of sexual assault at colleges and universities, is surely well-meaning, they’ve crafted a bill that seems wholly unconcerned with the rights of the accused and demonstrates a casual indifference to the rule of law.

Thankfully, a group of lawyers with specific experience in the area of campus sexual assault cases has drafted a letter to the lawmakers involved with some suggestions for revisions to the bill. Over at ACTA’s blog, we have only good things to say about these attorneys’ recommendations, though we lament the need for such basic reminders about the importance of fundamental legal protections:

It is a sad commentary on the state of our national institutions that lawmakers need a reminder about protecting due process of law and the rights of the accused as well as those of victims. Everyone wants to stop sexual assault, on campus and everywhere else. But trampling on the rule of law to do so is unwise and flies in the face of the Constitution’s spirit.

With any luck, some of the letter’s recommended policies will make their way into the bill. But those who love the rule of law must energetically remind their leaders to hold fast to it.  

Women’s College Revokes George Will’s Speaking Invitation


Syndicated columnist George Will was scheduled to speak this year at Scripps College, a women’s liberal arts college located in Southern California. But his invitation was withdrawn after he published a column in June on feminism and sexual assault that angered many liberals.

“It was in the works and then it wasn’t in the works,” Will told the Claremont Independent, a student newspaper. “They didn’t say that the column was the reason, but it was the reason.”

Will’s visit to campus would have taken place later this academic year, as part of a program meant to add diversity to campus by bringing conservatives in for guest lectures. According to the Independent, Scripps College has no registered Republicans on its faculty. So far, no replacement speaker has been named to take Will’s place.

In the column, Will accused the academic left of watering down the definitions of sexual assault, and exaggerating the number of victims on campus. He also argued that progressives were exaggerating the campus assault crisis, and politicizing it, in order to increase governmental control on university campuses. (Heather Mac Donald made a similar argument recently in an essay published here at National Review.)

Will’s column gained so much negative attention that a group of 12 U.S. Senators found time in their busy schedule to sign a letter denouncing it. Will responded with a letter of his own, arguing that it was the Senators, in fact,  who weren’t taking sexual assault seriously. 

“I think I take sexual assault much more seriously than you,” he wrote. ”Which is why I worry about definitions of that category of that crime that might, by their breadth, tend to trivialize it. And why I think sexual assault is a felony that should be dealt with by the criminal justice system, and not be adjudicated by improvised campus processes.”

It’s a safe bet that those are the kinds of opinions one would normally be very unlikely to hear at an all-women’s college that lacks a single Republican faculty member. No doubt Will’s planned visit to campus would have brought precisely the sort of lively debate and ideological diversity the speaker series was designed go facilitate.

Unfortunately, it appears that the young women of Scripps College will be deprived of any chance to hear George Will explain his views in person, now that his speaking invitation has been revoked.

Perhaps officials at Scripps College believe that diversity of opinion is something they and their students just can’t handle.

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Uh, oh -- Three Dirty Academic Words


Rich Vedder has an excellent piece on Forbes, Three Dirty Academic Words Ending in ‘Ity’ You could probably guess which words they are……..

How did you do?

The first is “diversity.” In academic parlance, the word “came to mean evaluating people not on their intellectual merit, the strength of their character, or other legitimate means, but rather by some biological group characteristic….” Why indeed should anyone be favored (or not) on account of gender or ancestry?

The second is “sustainability.” Vedder writes, “The same people who say global warming is going to hurt us soon despite 15 years of continuous cooling are convincing universities to waste monies and raise tuition to promote bad policies that are costly.” Much folly takes place thanks to this buzzword.

Finally, there is “civility.” To Vedder, this one is the most dangerous of all because “it means that people on campus should express themselves in a way that offends no one. It is anti-freedom of speech, the antithesis of what a great university is all about.” Of course, when people make arguments they should do so in a civil manner, but the mania for civility isn’t about that; it’s about intimidating people from raising arguments against the sacred cows on campus, such as “diversity.”

Stephen King, Eat Your Heart Out


This is the apotheosis of student loan horror, a ghastly tale of a woman ensnared by insidious higher education policies and bad personal decisions. No, her alma mater won’t soon feature her unreal story in the “Where Are They Now?” section of its fundraising promotions. 

I’m referring to the catastrophic misfortunes of “Lisa,” outlined in this Forbes article. An art school graduate who thought that she needed more credentials for a better paying job, she enrolled in an MFA program at the University of Southern California.

But she soon realized that even that credential wasn’t enough to make ends meet. With outstanding student loans and dead-end jobs on the horizon, she opted to enroll at Pepperdine Law School. Managing her child and other distractions, she graduated in the middle of the pack in 2009, but she faced a slumping legal job market. 

Her total student loan tab at that point was $275,000. She had to spend an additional $15,000 to take the state bar exam, which she passed. But the cost of living in California proved too high, so she moved to Minnesota. Then she had to take that state’s bar exam, which meant that she couldn’t work as an attorney for a year.

During that period she amassed $40,000 of credit card debt, took an adjunct law teaching gig, and worked at odd jobs to support her son. 

Lisa and her child are now on food stamps, and she’s making about $20,000 per year as a solo practitioner. Her debt has placed her ambitions of starting a family and getting married on hold. “I do feel like the key decision that has harmed me was to try to get to the advanced [degree] level,” she says. “I will likely die before I repay this debt.”

Happy Monday Morning!

So You Want To Be a Diversity Officer


That’s the topic of this Inside Higher Ed article today, and my posted suggestion is that, if we’re going to have these offices at all, the officer should have some knowledge of the civil-rights laws.  That’s precisely because so much of the diversity agenda (that is, the parts that involve treating student and faculty applicants differently on the basis of race, ethnicity, and sex) is inconsistent with the text of those laws.  I cite the ongoing Fisher v. University of Texas litigation and an earlier discussion I wrote about the problems with faculty discrimination in the name of diversity. 


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