Saving Higher Education

Students on the campus of Columbia University, 2009 (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Start by guaranteeing students’ constitutional rights and holding schools to truth-in-lending standards.

Despite the denials of universities boards, administrators, and faculty, American higher education, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, is a hopeless mess. What basis is there for such a harsh diagnosis?

One, a college education is far too expensive. Nearly 45 million young Americans owe $1.5 trillion in student loans — a staggering sum unmatched in American history. Millions have either defaulted on their loans or are able to pay only the interest and are making no progress on the principle.

Universities have for decades upped their tuition and services higher than the rate of annual inflation. Yet they deny they have any responsibility for the staggering student debt, even though the encumbrances have altered the U.S. economy, culture, and demography. One of many reasons youth are marrying later, delaying child-rearing, and unable to buy a home is that so many of them are burdened well into their late twenties and early thirties with student-loan debt, on average over $30,000 per student. Again, the university more or less shrugs, insisting it has no responsibility for this collective national disaster that it helped create

The student-loan crisis could be alleviated if universities, not the federal government, were the co-signers of the loans, which would make them share with students the moral hazard of loan repayment. Instead of spending superfluously on “diversity and inclusion” czars and entire castes of non-teaching facilitators, universities would have incentives to lower non-teaching costs. It would be in their own financial interest to ensure that students could minimize debt by graduating within four years, and also to invest in job placement for their graduates, so they could move into the full-time workforce months after finishing school.

Two, universities have no methods to analyze whether students are, in fact, better educated after they graduate than when they enrolled. While most colleges still demand to see applicants’ standardized SAT or ACT scores, so they can judge the relative quality and significance of their high-school grade-point average, they allow no such audits on the efficacy of their own four-year course of study.

That is, there is no commensurate exit national testing service that evaluates graduating college seniors, both to evaluate how much they have learned in college and to allow employers some idea of the relative quality of particular college degrees. Thus, potential students have no idea whether graduates test better or worse than when they entered a particular college. And we don’t have enough data to learn how schools rank the comparative competency of their graduates. Thanks to grade inflation, an increasingly therapeutic curriculum, and the politicization of the university, it’s increasingly doubtful that four years of colleges enhance students’ quantitative, analytical, and literary skills, at least not commensurately with the time and capital invested in an undergraduate degree.

If a university has had no problem in requiring a standardized SAT or ACT score of a high-school graduate, then it should not object to being treated the same as it treats others, and therefore should insist on testing for its own graduates. Graduate and professional schools usually require advanced standardized tests of applying baccalaureates, but it is difficult to find comparative ratings of such scores among undergraduate institutions.

Three, universities do not apprise incoming students about the full ramifications of their ensuing debt — in terms of monthly costs and average loan duration — and their likely inability to pay off their loans. Much less do universities provide students information on the average post-graduation compensation of particular majors, to allow students some idea of how their chosen field of study may or may not provide enough compensation to pay off their loans.

Universities should be required to have the same truth-in-lending standards as furniture or car-sales personnel. Teen-age college applicants should be told the precise monthly costs of principle and interest payments, and the average duration of student loans following graduation, as well as the average salaries for particular majors upon graduation.

Students should also be given detailed breakdowns of the charges they incur — the amount that each course costs the students, as well as the costs for office hours, administrative overhead, building maintenance, insurance, etc., so they can compare different paradigms at various schools. Once a student is apprised of where his loan dollars are allocated, he might take a far more mature attitude toward university priorities that will affect his financial status for years.

Four, universities routinely deprive students of their constitutional rights while on campus. Activist conservative and religious students on many campuses accept that they will be subject to a degree of harassment and intimidation not found off campus, and not experienced by liberal and left-wing counterparts on campus.

Visiting conservative speakers expect that might be being disinvited, shouted down, or physically assaulted on many campuses, with the likelihood that student perpetrators will not be punished. Students concede that the expression of conservative or unorthodox views in class can endanger their grades, and can lead to harassment and worse outside the classroom.

In general, many of the protections of the Bill of Rights no longer apply on campus, especially in matters of alleged racism or sexual harassment, or the expression of heterodox ideas. Colleges often ignore constitutional guarantees that all students will be treated equally without regard to race, religion, or gender as outlined in constitutional amendments, federal legislation, and court rulings. As a result, “safe spaces” on campus will openly discriminate against those of particular races. Dorms will be sometimes be segregated by race in a fashion that would be illegal in commercial rental agreement and home sales. Admissions are governed in part by racial and gender preferences. Complaints about the infringements of constitutionally protected freedoms will either be met by reprisals or ignored.

Alumni and donors should give to universities only on the condition that they commit to following the U.S. Constitution. They should not contribute blindly to higher education but target their gifts to particular programs and insist on contractual requirements to ensure the funds are spent as donors intended.

Campus disrupters who shout down speakers or physically assault other students should be subject to criminal liability, the same way that people who commit felonies and misdemeanors in the workplace are not given exemption by their employers. Students who employ violence against faculty, other students, and visitors are not wild-eyed idealists dedicated to some revolution. Most heavily weigh their careerist aspirations and commit violence on the premise that they will never face expulsion, much less charges of felony or misdemeanor assault that might endanger their planned career trajectories. If a college administration were to expel students who attack speakers or destroy the property of others on campus, and then notify legal authorities of such criminality, most campus disruptions would soon cease — and not just on the campus in question.

Five, even private universities are, in a tax sense, not wholly private. The returns on multibillion-dollar endowments are, even after the tax reforms of 2017, still largely exempt from taxation or much federal oversight. At a time when student debt incurred at universities exceeds $1.5 trillion, less than half of all endowment income is pledged to student scholarships and tuition reductions. The decisions on how universities and colleges spend the other half of their tax-exempt incomes are largely their own; the federal government gives far greater latitude to campuses than to other tax-exempt foundations. How ironic that in 2020, America’s universities and colleges are the wealthiest in history — at the very time when aggregate student debt has reached a record high.

The U.S. government should continue to reexamine the entire tradition of tax-exempt university endowments — in this age of $20 billion, $30 billion, and $40 billion individual Ivy League and marquee endowments — and adjust tax policy accordingly. Aggregate tax-exempt university endowments exceed $600,000 billion, and the richest Ivy League schools have banked between $1 million and $3 million per student enrolled. Given the political activism of universities, their failure to guarantee students’ constitutional protections, and their use of tax-exempt income for non-instructional and even non-educational expenses, the entire notion of tax-exempt status should be revisited, with far greater restrictions imposed. And given that just 100 colleges and universities have two-thirds of all endowments, there should be a far lower cap on tax-free investment income.

Higher education increasingly values aristocratic brand names, money, and progressive agendas rather than graduating well-educated and debt-free students who leave prepared to think inductively and empirically, and to enter the workforce as autonomous citizens who are financially, politically, and culturally independent. Instead, higher education has managed to turn out a generation of students who are often both ignorant and arrogant, both far less educated than prior generations of graduates and far more indebted for much of their lives — and all for mostly inferior educations. That all of these paradoxes occur in a landscape of loud progressivism is a cruel joke.

 

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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