Curing Higher Ed in the Wake of COVID-19

Adam Ellwanger

It has long been evident to keen observers that higher education in America is broken. But our moment is unique: perhaps for the first time, there is broad, bi-partisan acknowledgement of this fact. The most commonly cited sign of the impending collapse of our nation’s university system is the ever-rising cost of undergraduate education, which results in ever-rising student loan debt for graduates who find a labor market that is entirely flooded with holders of bachelor’s degrees. But there are many other signs.

The coronavirus pandemic will unquestionably reshape higher education in major ways, but which ways are not yet clear. It is possible – perhaps even likely – that portions of massive federal stimulus packages and bailouts allotted to colleges and universities will prop up the failing status quo for a bit longer. If that happens, we will have missed a once-in-a-century opportunity to undertake a much-needed restructuring of the role and delivery of higher education in America. But even if governments at the state and federal levels do take up this opportunity to reimagine the university, the likely result will be narrowly applied solutions designed to address longstanding partisan gripes.

If the left gets its way, reform will simply mean increased access to the university for increasingly underprepared applicants and government-subsidized “free” tuition that will do nothing to address the problem of cost. If conservatives manage to win the ensuing battle, the reforms will probably center on more online courses (to reduce cost), which will have the supposed side benefit of leveling the academic labor market. However, it will also eventually eliminate tenure for almost all faculty and usher in a wave of under-qualified instructors, further decreasing the cost (but also quality) of higher education.

To avoid these half-measures, we must begin to imagine a broadly reformed model of the American university – one that is neither a quick fix to perpetuate “business as usual,” nor a limited rebuild aimed at addressing ideological preoccupations about academic life. I’ve spent all 24 years since I turned 18 living and/or working on a college campus, and this time has made one thing abundantly clear: the current model of higher education is unsustainable, ineffective in achieving its stated goals, and probably unethical. COVID-19 has disrupted the operation of higher education, bringing with it a chance to make the university anew.

In what follows, I describe at some length the reasons that higher education has failed to perform its basic role in our nation, and I discuss some of the lesser known monetary factors that cause its dysfunction. Then, I loosely sketch some of the reforms that I hope will be undertaken.

The Tensions Between the University and Democracy

Since its inception in the Middle Ages, the concept of the university has always been elitist. Historically speaking, only the best-educated people could find paying positions in the academy, and only the best-positioned people could secure opportunities to study at these institutions. The major currency of academic life is expertise. The application of one’s expertise in the form of teaching, research, and publication is the prime means of advancement in the university. The notion of expertise is inherently elitist – the expert, by definition, possesses knowledge that few people have the time, means, or ability to master. The university, as an institution that cultivates expertise and isolates the experts it produces from the broader society (housing them on the intellectual oases we call “campuses”), has all the trappings of aristocratic leisure and privilege.

This elitism makes it clear that universities were not an invention of democratic societies. In his now-classic 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom explains the deeply fraught relationship between the university and democratic ideals: given that democracies empower the masses (who are by nature “average” people with limited expertise and common appetites), democracy tends to foster a public culture of mediocrity. Democratic inclusivity grants political agency to all citizens, enabling the majority to lower the standards, values, behaviors, tastes, and expectations of society at large. Bloom saw the university as a counterbalance to democracy’s inexorable pull toward the mediocre.

Thus, in defense of high culture and ideas, the university served as an elitist space within democracy, one set aside and allowed to flourish for the sake of democracy– to protect it from itself. Bloom writes: “It is necessary that there be an unpopular institution in our midst that sets clarity above well-being or compassion, that resists our powerful urges and temptations, that is free of all snobbism but has standards” (252).

The Recent History of the University in American (Market) Democracy

Well, Bloom was rather prophetic here. In 2020, the American university is “unpopular,” though not in quite the way he meant. And it’s important to notice that the public dissatisfaction with universities has grown as they have become more inclusive, more accessible, more “open.” In short, the attempts to “popularize” the university against Bloom’s advice have only diminished public perceptions of the institution. And yet, in spite of the current public discontent with institutes of higher education, the nation steadily grows more democratic in its tastes and less tolerant of any institution that performs its work through exclusion and exclusivity. This ensures that universities can no longer do the cultural work that they have historically performed.

After America’s victory in World War II, the passage of the GI Bill hinted at the new function of the university in democratic life. The number of Americans pursuing higher education multiplied rapidly. This didn’t happen because the government thought we needed more scholars. It passed as an effort to minimize the possibility of mass unemployment for returning GIs. But it also enabled cultural elites’ vision of a future where the sorts of labor that preserve the American global order require more advanced competencies than high school typically affords. The consensus grew that the purpose of college was to prepare people for these new vocations that ensured admission to the middle class.

As waves of new applicants hit schools, it became clear that many of them did not have the requisite skills needed for success at the college level. While this stirred some initial resistance from universities, the lavishness and security of federal funding helped them quickly acquiesce to the new order. A remedial tier of courses was born, and as even more people entered college over the ensuing decades, this remedial tier lost its status as such and became the norm. Today, as the number of unprepared students continues to rise and a new set of remedial courses fails in bringing them up to speed, there is enormous pressure to further lower the standards for student success. Paradoxically, as E.D. Hirsch pointed out in his 1988 book Cultural Literacy, curricula and course offerings grow both more general and more diverse.

Although the student revolutions in the ‘60s did much to change the university, the last thirty years have actually changed higher education to a far greater extent. The speed of American technological advancement brought a shift in how leaders in government, education, and business imagined our future. The rise of globalist ideology precipitated a new understanding of universities’ mission in the U.S. As manufacturing and unskilled labor were sent overseas, the sense grew that America’s twenty first-century economy would need workers primarily skilled in information technology, organizational management, and knowledge production. As Patrick Deneen has noted in Why Liberalism Failed, this modern vision required a large, highly skilled, broadly educated, and transportable labor force. Producing and enlarging a pool of people who fit that bill has been the main aim of higher education since the 1980s.

But since the Great Recession began in 2008, a few unpleasant truths have rapidly come to light. First, there are far more Americans holding bachelor’s degrees than there are jobs that require this level of education. (As technology advances, many forms of labor require progressively less human interaction.) This ensures that many people who hold a bachelor’s are unable to leverage that credential into the kinds of positions they thought the degree guaranteed. Even as college has become less valuable, the cost has increased.

COVID-19 has exposed the folly of outsourcing our manufacturing and low-skill labor, and a significant proportion of that labor will be repatriated over the coming decade. This reveals the unsustainability of our current model of higher education; the model was built to produce labor for a set of economic conditions that never fully materialized. Only a decade ago, President Obama was calling for every American to pursue higher education. This was implausiblein 2009. But given the current economic realities, it is clearly a bad idea. We’re educating too many people as it is.

Not Everyone Should Go to College

Despite great anxieties among college administrators that the pandemic will gut college enrollment in the coming years, I expect that we will see a rise in the number of applications. This will be partly the effect of continued cheerleading by ill-informed parents and high school guidance counselors, but the biggest cause of the enrollment bump will be the intertwined needs of the federal government, schools, and the individuals seeking admission to colleges.

Policy gimmicks like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” ignore a harsh reality that must be recognized for our primary and secondary schools to be effective: all American children do not have equal intellectual capacity, nor do they all have a support structure at home that is conducive to academic success. No amount of government tinkering or institutional adjustment will change this. In truth, at some point between kindergarten and the end of high school, some children must be (academically) left behind. And indeed, they are. But this inevitable outcome is typically read as a sign of institutional dysfunction. It isn’t. Schools should be performing a critical sorting function, deciding who is well-prepared for collegiate study. Historically, a student’s GPA and performance on standardized tests indicated that preparedness. But in our era of rampant grade inflation, coupled with a pervasive belief in the discriminatory nature of all testing, there is no reliable indicator. Simply having finished high school is not an indicator of college-readiness.

Still, most high school guidance counselors assume that it is. This belief is intensified because schools are rife with progressive ideologies of inclusivity, accessibility, self-esteem, diversity, and encouragement. From the time they begin school, students are not only told that they must go to college, they are not only told that they can succeed in higher education – they are also told that they will succeed and that completion will realize that pernicious American lie that “you can be whatever you want to be if you put your mind to it.” By the end of senior year, most students are eager to apply to college, if for no other reason than the parties. The ones who are less than eager are often required to complete an application in order to graduate high school.

In the recent past, many of these applicants would have been rejected due to their under-preparedness. But today, universities are almost wholly dependent on enrollment for the funding needed to operate. Over the last thirty years, partly in response to the rigid ideological indoctrination that happens at most colleges, many legislatures in conservative states have reduced the funding of public colleges or ensured that enrollment determines the amount of funding. It should come as no surprise, then, that enrollment increased. Further, there are so many colleges now that institutions (both public and private) have entered into much more direct competition for students. Successful recruitment depends in large part on features that have little or nothing to do with academics – posh dormitories, opulent sports complexes, campus aesthetics, etc. These are the things (along with an ever-expanding administrative bureaucracy) that drive tuition inflation. Heavily dependent as they are on enrollment for funding, universities find they need more funding than ever to compete in a broadened marketplace. At many institutions, the solution is mass admission of students who are not equipped for academic success at the college level.

The Higher Ed Money Game

These marginal students are admitted for one reason: they can pay. And the reason they can pay is the federal system’s allotment of student loans, which seems perfectly designed to magnify the problems that universities are causing in our society. As recently as a decade ago, most loans were issued by banks and other private lenders, and the government guaranteed those loans. But in 2010, the Federal Direct Student Loan Program (FDSLP) upended the existing order by cutting banks out of the system. While banks can still issue student loans, those loans are not guaranteed. The FDSLP made it so that the U.S. Department of Education is the direct lender for the vast majority of student loans. Catastrophically, student loan debt is non-dischargeable, even after a debtor has demonstrated bankruptcy. This ensures that the question of whether the student will ever finish the degree plays no role in the government’s decision as to whether to extend a loan. Neither does the question of whether a completed degree enables the student to enter a profession that will enable him to pay the loans back.

Our culture’s insistence on the importance of college and the need for everyone to go covers for the fact that lenders are often saddling unwitting people with debt for an education that they may not be academically prepared to complete. It is essential to recognize that our inspirational, aspirational rhetoric that encourages all students to go to college can actually work to worsen rather than improve people’s lives.

Imagine a student who was never really prepared for college work and didn’t have the ability to pay out of pocket. He applies, and predictably, is admitted. After three years of failing (and re-taking) barrier courses, the student has made little progress toward the degree but has amassed significant debt. Once he realizes that he will probably be unable to complete the degree, he quits. At that point, this person (who could have entered a trade or apprenticeship right after high school) begins the process of seeking a source of income that doesn’t require a college degree – except he is now burdened with tens of thousands of dollars of non-dischargeable debt incurred pursuing a degree he never completed. This is the story of many students. The irony is rich: while people in universities laud themselves as champions of the lower classes and historically disadvantaged minorities, the universities are often setting back those applicants’ prospects for financial independence and personal happiness. So much for elitism. In truth, schools admit these students simply to keep the financial house of cards intact. Without that tuition revenue, the institutional structure would need to be rebuilt entirely.

Student Loans as a Form of Public Assistance

Another problem with America’s system for funding students’ college tuition is that it serves as a form of public assistance. This is rarely discussed by anyone within higher education and is seldom acknowledged by observers of the academy. This silence on this issue is due, I think, to two factors. First, at the administrative level, acknowledging this fact might bring unwanted reforms that would jeopardize enrollment, and thus put universities in even more dire financial straits. Secondly, at the level of the professorate, the leftist sympathies of most faculty members cause them to look favorably on the fact that many financially insecure people use the university as a means of securing short-term relief from economic hardship.

It works like this: when a prospective student applies for federal student loans, he may elect to take more money than is required for tuition and fees. This is allowed to provide for expenses such as books, lodging, meals, and many other costs in the event that the student elects not to work a job during his studies. In some cases (and reliable data on this is hard to come by, which is a result of the silence surrounding the practice), people who are struggling financially will apply to college either with no intention of actually attending or with no intention of completing the degree. Upon admission (often guaranteed by the forces democratizing the university and increasing access), the student elects to take the maximum amount of student loans offered to him. The student then awaits the deposit of the “overage” of their loan – the portion left over when tuition and fees are deducted, a sum he is then free to spend however he chooses. The amount of an overage check can range from $1000 to over $4000 dollars annually.

Some students who matriculate simply for temporary financial relief come to class but put forth little effort on the assumption that they will be unable to graduate. Others wait for the overage deposit, never to be seen again. Universities have no financial reason to put an end to this; after all, the government pays them, and that’s what matters. Their rhetoric of inclusion allows universities to tell themselves that they are giving “opportunities” to people who lacked access to higher education in the past. Schools’ indifference to the financial prospects of their most vulnerable applicants suggests they see the short-term influx of cash as a greater good than the future success of these students; otherwise schools wouldn’t burden them with a debt many will never pay. Given the rates of default on student loan debt, the government does have good reason to reform the system: they will never collect the balance of many defaulted loans. But the changes required to solve the problem would be unpopular because the number of students going to college would be significantly reduced. This would result in public outcry over “exclusion” and would also require many reforms within schools. Thus, legislators sit on their hands. The ones who don’t simply make detail-free demands for “free” college.

Declining Quality in the Popularized, Monetized University

These dynamics – the monetary means by which many universities stay afloat – are clearly a disaster, and their effects aren’t only economic. The “accessibility” and “inclusivity” of the university make effective teaching much more difficult. When the bar to admission is low, it is hard to determine where to pitch a course. If the top third of students in a class are well educated, the middle third are mediocre students, and the bottom third are students who are generally unprepared for college study, how does one proceed? Pitch the course to the best students, ensuring that the middling students get very little from the course and the worst students are completely lost? Pitch it down the middle, so that the mediocre students gain little, the best students gain nothing, and the most marginal students struggle all semester? Spend the semester working to remediate the deficiencies of the least-prepared students, while the best students learn nothing new and the middling ones gain very little? The democratized, inclusive university virtually requires that professors give less attention to some students than they do to others. Accessibility breeds mediocrity.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, many families will be even less able to fund an education. Again, this will probably increase enrollment. The individuals who can pay for school won’t be deterred from applying. And the individuals who take the greatest economic hit from the pandemic will rightly recognize that applying for college will be a great boon to their short-term financial prospects. The uncertainty that the pandemic poses for the financial viability of the universities will only make them admit more marginal students than they typically would in the names of access and inclusion. These two powerful trends – the democratizing and monetizing of our universities – interact to ensure the dysfunction of the educational enterprise writ large.

This system cannot continue. We can delay its utter collapse, but we can’t avoid it. And to delay it is only to ignore all the collateral damage of such a gesture: the vast loss of revenue resulting from unpaid student debt, the material consequences of the government’s predatory lending, the diminishing value of an already diminished bachelor’s degree, the lowering of standards in our institutions of higher learning, and the imposition of private debt among citizens who are most financially vulnerable. The opportunity this moment provides to reinvent higher education is one of the few great benefits of this pandemic. So, what’s next?

Reforming the University

The strongest catalyst to force real reform in colleges and universities would be to enact legislation that allows for student loan debt to be discharged in the case of bankruptcy.

The National Association of Scholars (NAS), as the most prominent academic organization calling for foundational change, has taken the lead in calling for reforms of the sort I describe. They have issued calls for various legislative changes to the Higher Education Act in a document titled “Freedom to Learn Amendments” and another that addresses the context of the pandemic specifically titled Critical Care. In the former, NAS cuts to the heart of the problem, noting that “Title IV of the Higher Education Act has turned American higher education into a special interest more devoted to protecting its access to public funds than to advancing the education of students or America’s international competitiveness.”

Specifically, NAS calls for a minimum grade point average that students must maintain to stay eligible for loans. Further, the association calls for much greater obligations on the part of schools in informing students of their costs, empowering students to choose how much they borrow, and ensuring that students understand the personal financial implications of taking loans. These are sorely needed reforms.

But the boldest reform advocated by NAS is allowing loan debt to be discharged in the case of bankruptcy. Further, the proposed legislation would “require institutions of higher education to accept responsibility for 30% of loans (including accruing interest) defaulted on by students at their institution, to be repaid to lending institutions over a 20-year period.”

I applaud the innovative vision put forward by NAS, but I argue that it may be more effective if some universities were responsible for a larger percentage of a loan in default – ideally, up to 50% for prestigious schools with large endowments. Since the government does no vetting to ensure a loan applicant’s college readiness, it falls entirely to the schools to do this work. And as I have shown, universities are too desperate for enrollment to do that vetting faithfully. Thus, for practical reasons, I don’t think that holding universities accountable for 30% of discharged loans would be enough to change the status quo at many institutions.

Just as some students are willing to incur long-term student loan debt to procure overage checks that relieve immediate economic pressures, many universities would view the immediate influx of tuition as worth the risk that they might have to repay 30% of it (over a course of 20 years). In the best-case scenario, they keep 100% of the tuition brought in by loaned money. In the worst case, they get to keep 70% of it. Those odds would ensure that it remains beneficial to admit large numbers of underprepared students (many of whom will never actually take the legal steps required to formally declare bankruptcy).

I call for a graded system for determining the percentage of defaulted debt a particular university is obligated to repay. This is because a 30% obligation will be an enormous penalty for some schools and a pittance for others. Ivy League schools and other prestigious institutions with large endowments could simply assume the 30% is the cost of doing business and resolve to pay it without instituting any procedural changes. Another concern is that, without mandating any cost control mechanism, smaller universities and private colleges could raise tuition and fees even further in an effort to offset the losses from paying back discharged loans.

Thus, I endorse the plan of NAS, but with the recommendation that the percentage of defaulted debt for which a given school is responsible is calibrated in such a way that it forces changes in terms of admission practices. In some cases, this will require a penalty that is greater than a 30% obligation. For schools in more precarious financial situations, much less than 30% might be required to spur reform – provided that some cost control measures are also a part of the plan. With these changes in place, schools would be forced to apply more scrutiny to each admission as they build their freshman cohorts.

The University Revitalized

As a result of these changes, college enrollment numbers will drop steadily. This will be painful. A number of colleges and universities – especially middle- and lower-tier schools in areas with a number of competing institutions – will close. The schools that remain will need to learn how to operate on much leaner budgets. But there will be positive side effects. First, with the proportion of college-ready students dramatically increased, graduation rates will go up, rates of attrition will go down, and the quality of instruction will improve. Further, given the decline in enrollments, the university could break its unethical reliance on adjunct faculty, some of whom earn as little as 15% of what a tenured or tenure-track professor would be paid to teach a course. The exploitation of adjunct labor is a blemish on higher ed’s supposed commitment to social justice, and the number of adjuncts has risen steadily over the last decades.

Lower enrollment will also do much to curb the credentialing arms race in America. Once the bachelor’s degree became a ubiquitous credential, people flocked to master’s programs. Now, as an ever-increasing number of people hold a master’s degree, the push is on to democratize the PhD. So, the standards continue to decline as the current model holds. But with the necessary reforms, far fewer PhDs would be minted – especially in humanities disciplines, where the number of doctoral applicants who are accepted far exceeds the number of available positions for humanities scholars. The reason so many doctoral students are accepted is so that they can instruct the (currently) high-enrollment lower-division courses that most tenure-track and tenured professors would prefer not to teach. The changes I am describing will get the best professors back in freshman classrooms and shut down the unethical overproduction of PhDs in fields where graduates are not likely to secure gainful academic positions.

Given that the federal government would be writing off much less debt as uncollectible, a substantial amount of money would be freed up to provide loans and grants to well-credentialed leaders in higher ed to develop private-sector experimental schools of various sizes, shapes, and foci, innovating new curricula and new means of credentialing. Some of these schools may begin from an assumption that students don’t need the kind of sprawling general education requirements that colleges typically impose. Some schools may only focus on one disciplinary family. For example, perhaps one school is strictly dedicated to study of the humanities (philosophy, rhetoric, literature, writing, history, art, and language) and offers an intensive 18-month course of study with only six or seven professors jointly offering courses that explore the relation between those disciplines. A similar school can be imagined for those pursuing scientific careers. Portions of the funding that previously guaranteed many student loans could also be dedicated to starting public trade and vocational schools in various fields. With more high school graduates forced to consider options besides the traditional college route, the trades would be restored to their status as a dignified and respected form of American labor and craftsmanship.

Contrary to the visions of many educational reformers, community colleges would not be expanded, but would probably be rendered obsolete except in rural areas. The associate’s degrees that they offer tend to be disfavored by employers in industries demanding an intermediate level of skill (where a bachelor’s is generally required). The students aiming at careers that don’t require an extended course of collegiate study would be better served by going to trade schools or one of the discipline-specific experimental schools than spending two years at a community college where they secure very basic competence in an array of academic disciplines.

These are the outlines of a revitalized system of American higher education. Such reforms would return the universities to a much narrower, scholarly mission of generating new knowledge and transmitting an intellectual and cultural tradition to a student body that was chosen on the basis of their potential to fulfill those roles in the future. In short, the universities would be de-democratized, but improved. Critics are correct that this would make our universities less “accessible” and more “exclusive.” But as I have shown, the university was founded on the bases of expertise, exclusivity, and excellence. As the American university progressively abandoned those functions, our institutions have decayed at a faster rate.

That decay is now evident to any serious observer of higher education. It is true that after these reforms, many Americans would not be accepted for collegiate study in the remaining four-year universities. But this also means that far fewer citizens would be burdened with student loans that they are incapable of paying. Fewer students will be sold a four-year degree only to learn after graduation that this credential no longer opens the doors they were promised would open. Fewer students will be admitted to a curriculum in which they were never really prepared to succeed, meaning that fewer students will have to deal with the humiliation of thinking that the resulting academic failure (which was virtually pre-determined) was somehow their fault. While the idea of making anything less inclusive seems counterintuitive to many Americans, one can easily make the case that these reforms and their effects would be a step toward greater social justice, not away from it.

The current model of higher education is utterly dysfunctional. COVID-19 has given us an unprecedented opportunity to make it work again. Legislators, activists, and sympathetic faculty and administrators need to begin this process of rebuilding immediately. These reforms are strong medicine, but they promise to cure the various problems that plague our colleges. Our democracy, our universities, and the American people deserve better. Let’s meet this moment.


Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown, where he studies rhetoric, writing, and public discourse. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, is available now. Reach him on Parler @TheHereticalTruth, or by email at [email protected].

Image: Claca016, Public Domain

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