Trump’s Chance to Fix American Higher Education
Donald Trump’s election brings with it both an opportunity and an imperative to straighten out the mess that modern higher education has become. The level of disconnection of the academy from the rest of America is most recently evidenced by the fact that the Ivory Tower -- for all its huffy pretenses of superior knowledge and insight -- was utterly blindsided by this presidential election’s result (along with the equally deluded media), even though the writing was on the wall for all who could read it.
Unmoored, confused and adrift, students and faculty alike are now struggling to come to terms with reality, wondering where they collectively went so very wrong. They’re resorting to calling in the therapy dogs and emotional support counselors to talk them off the ledge and back into the classrooms, where, clearly, some wholesale changes are desperately needed if higher education is going to remain a viable, relevant enterprise.
There are three main problems the Trump administration must address to begin to restore academia to a semblance of its former glory: the culture, the cost and the credibility of today’s colleges. If higher education sincerely wants to understand where they’ve gone wrong, and how they can go right again, here’s what has to be faced:
The culture on college campuses has descended to the point that some now refer to them as institutions of lower learning. Hook-up culture, rape, STDs, drugs, and alcohol abuse are just the tip of this disastrous iceberg. Below that lies a rejection of widely accepted moral values, dismissal of the noble traditions of Western Civilization and regular, unrepentant violation of the standard rules of human discourse, logic, and reasonable disagreement. Wreckage is the result.
The refusal of academics to tolerate different points of view (or even recognize that there are other points of view) undermines their own professed obsession with “inclusion” and “diversity” to the point of absurd hypocrisy. Colleges regularly violate free speech and due process rights and fail to imbue students with the most basic understanding of historical context. When a dissenting view does appear, students are taught to feign outrage, to collapse emotionally, or to launch vicious personal attacks, all of which bypasses “reasoned thought” as a legitimate response. It’s no wonder, then that so many campuses have declined into utter chaos, disorder and outright riots. Current college antics have made them a nationwide laughingstock.
Candidate Trump has already issued a thunderous rebuke to the forces of political correctness, which have been suffocating free thought on college campuses for a generation. By standing tall against the resulting ridicule and indignation of the PC-police, he has shown that it is possible to win this battle once and for all.
One area ripe for review is the tax-exempt status of non-profit institutions that fail to include the full-range of American political views and to uphold constitutional rights on campus. Why should we be subsidizing schools that choose to function as one-sided partisan political instruments? Churches have long had their nonprofit status threatened for taking political stances; why should colleges, which preach leftist secular humanism and attempt to stamp out opposition, be immune from the same treatment?
College was once a responsible choice and a solid investment in a young person’s economic future. It was considered a surefire ticket to the middle class and a worthwhile monetary sacrifice for families to make in giving their children a chance to succeed in life.
Today, costs have soared to the point that college has become a costly albatross for many students, who face decades of debt despite diminished employment prospects. The situation has gotten so bad that many thoughtful students now question whether their financial future might be brighter if they avoided college altogether.
There are many theories on why higher education costs so much, some of which I cover in my book The New College Reality. Two of the most convincing explanations are runaway bureaucracy and third-party payers. Both of these derive from well intentioned but faulty federal interventions.
The upward trajectory in college tuition prices follows the introduction of Pell Grants to help pay for it. In fact, a new Federal Reserve report acknowledges a link between increased federal aid and rising tuition prices. Likewise, the dramatic increase in the number of college administrators can be traced to federal regulations requiring so much recordkeeping and accountability that some colleges now have as many administrators as they do faculty members! This adds to the cost without measurably improving the classroom experience or learning outcomes of students.
There are several ways the Trump administration can begin to tackle the affordability problem in higher education. One way would be to reduce the federal intrusions that require so much increased recordkeeping (recent Title IX mandates come to mind.) Increased efficiency and competition from online and for-profit educational models, which the higher education cartel has long resisted, are other ways to reduce costs.
As for the Pell Grant conundrum, this is going to have to be addressed at some point. It actually bears great similarity to the health insurance problem in that, once a third-party payer is involved in subsidizing a financial transaction, costs typically soar. Several knowledgeable higher education experts, including Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, argue that it is time to end the student loan program so that costs can fall back in line with what middle class families can actually afford to pay, and students do not have to indenture themselves with crushing debt. It is time to have this long-avoided conversation.
The credibility of the entire academic enterprise is currently at stake. While draining the swamp in Washington, the Trump administration should also review mutual backslapping arrangements in college accreditation. There are too many low-quality institutions that are failing to deliver a quality education yet retaining accreditation status. College students spend far too little time studying and learn far too little, which has been well documented. Many colleges work under an imperative to admit and retain as many tuition paying students as possible, regardless of ability, to increase their bottom line; this further undermines quality and erodes their reputations.
Students borrow far too much and see far too little return for their investment when they enter the employment market. The fact is, despite all the high-minded rhetoric on the unquantifiable value of a liberal arts degree, the #1 reason people choose to attend college is to “Get a Better Job.” If those hoped-for results don’t turn up, then the integrity of the whole enterprise could collapse -- which is a real possibility, at this point.
This is where a Trump administration can really impact higher education. If Trump succeeds with his plan to bring jobs back for the American worker, and can tie those jobs to earning a college degree, then he will prove to be the best friend higher education ever had.
There is a great deal of work to be done to correct the massive problems that currently plague American higher education, but also a tremendous opportunity to make dramatic improvements quickly. The day of reckoning is at hand. All that is needed is resolve, discipline and determination and President-elect Trump possesses all these traits in ample supply. Gaudeamus igitur!
Bonnie K. Snyder is a graduate of Harvard College and a Doctor of Higher Education. She is also the author of The New College Reality and The Unemployed College Graduate’s Survival Guide and the creator of OutsmartingCollege™ courses.