Kevin Carey on Rebooting Public Higher Education

Though I don’t agree with some of the narrative Kevin Carey uses to make his case, the conclusion of his recent essay on public higher education struck me as both politically smart and substantively sound. The conceit of the piece is that we need a new Morrill Act — a reference to the 1862 federal legislation which encouraged the creation of a network of public universities:

The federal government has already taken steps toward accountability by establishing a new regulatory structure that judges programs at for-profit institutions based on their graduates’ success in obtaining well-paying jobs and paying back loans. Similar data should be collected and reported for all colleges and universities, profit-seeking and otherwise. Getting a good job isn’t the only reason people go to college, but it’s the most important reason, and in a time when the most popular undergraduate major (by far) is business, students and parents borrowing billions of dollars per year should know what they’re getting for their investment in return.

At the same time, the federal government should revisit the principles of the Morrill Act and adapt them for the new age. The mechanic arts remain vital, but many of the machines are in cyberspace now, and online higher education has exploded in size and scope over the last 10 years. Public universities have often been laggards in taking full advantage of information technology, leaving for-profit higher education corporations the task of building online programs, many of them of questionable quality.

The Morrill Act worked because the federal government made substantial public resources available under clearly defined conditions and then allowed new public institutions to rise up and meet them. It could do the same again, this time on the virtual frontier. Such new public organizations wouldn’t be universities as we presently define them. They wouldn’t require elaborate physical campuses or have to contend with the difficulty of changing deeply rooted organizational cultures. They would have no association with uncontrollable professional sports teams. Their only conditions would be low cost, high quality, and a relentless, highly transparent focus on student learning and long-term success in employment and life. Such a renewed commitment to public higher education, designed for the modern world, could ensure that all classes of students continue to receive a liberal and practical education in all pursuits and professions.

The beauty of these new public institutions, many if not most of which would be established by private citizens, is that they would force legacy public institutions to adapt to meet the needs of a changing student population. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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