Making Higher Education Accountable

David Randall

This speech was given at Grove City College on August 10, 2018, and is based on a previous essay called "Six Ideas to De-Politicize the Academy." 

Whom the gods would destroy, they first grant a government subsidy.

It didn’t seem that way when federal cash entered higher education—first the GI Bill of 1944, and then the Higher Education Act of 1965. The government was just going to make college cheaper. The colleges might get bigger, but there wouldn’t be much change besides.

It hasn’t worked out that way. By now our colleges get most of their money from the government—about a quarter of their revenue comes from miscellaneous government grants, contracts, appropriations, and another quarter just from federally guaranteed student loans. By now hardly any dare risk foregoing Federal funding.

Federally guaranteed student loans are the real poisoned chalice—the gift that entangles all of higher education in the Federal government’s thickening web. After all, the government has to make sure it isn’t getting defrauded when it’s giving out student loans, so it creates regulations to make sure that its money only goes to real colleges. That’s solicitous of the taxpayer, but it’s also been the garden path toward a monstrous accreditation bureaucracy, and endless government regulations that colleges don’t fight if they value their tuition money.

Even before the Department of Education got political, the government’s bureaucracy was molding our colleges into carbon copies, each with a standard-issue set of administrators tasked to cross every T the government wanted crossed. What made matters worse was that the Federal government’s education bureaucracy got captured by progressive ideologues, who started using their regulatory power to impose progressive policies on the colleges. Every college not only had to obey the most radical interpretation of Title IX regulations but also had to create its own internal bureaucracy of radicals to enforce the progressive bureaucrats’ diktats. Federal student loans turned every progressive initiative into an offer that colleges couldn’t resist.

But it wasn’t just the government cracking its whip at the colleges. The way the government set up the student loan programs allowed the colleges to milk the Federal government for loan money—even when they didn’t provide students much education in return.

The central problem with the current system is that the colleges get the money, but it’s the students who’re taking out the loans. The colleges receive the tuition, with no strings attached, but the student has to pay up, even if he hasn’t gotten anything from the course—not a degree, not a passing grade, not even a proper education. Say a college admits a marginal student, not really prepared for college-level work. The college gets his $10,000 in first-year student loans as pure profit, but if the student drops out, he’s the one on the hook.

There’s a moment in the Mel Brooks movie The Producers where the accountant Leo Bloom realizes that “under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit.” The Producers came out in 1967, and it must have been just about then that some unsung Leo Bloom at Gougem State realized you could make more money with a classful of failing students than a classful of passing ones. Gougem State could admit a mob of unprepared students, crowd them in by the two-hundred into freshman lectures delivered by an ill-paid graduate student, and make a mint precisely because more than half that mob would flunk out before sophomore year, and only a few survivors would be around to sign up for the more expensive, smaller upper-level courses.

Of course, it doesn’t look good to have all your incoming students fail. Gougem’s Leo Bloom might even have felt bad about admitting students just because they came with dollar bills attached, even if they couldn’t do college level work. Leo, therefore, hired a lot of bureaucrats with a cut of his government money, so Gougem could try to “retain” and “prepare” its students. These bureaucrats worked in retention and remediation offices—offices dedicated to keeping incoming students through to graduation, and offices dedicated to providing students the make-up work they needed to do college-level study. They had their hands full. By now, more than 50% of students at two-year colleges need remediation—and so do 20% of students at four-year colleges. Remedial courses nationwide now cost $1.5 billion annually.

Of course, saying outright that up to half the students couldn’t do college work was a little embarrassing, so Leo came up with some euphemisms—the Office of Student Life, the Office of Residential Life, the Office of Diversity, First-Year Experience, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and so on. They still did the old retention and remediation work, but under a fig leaf.

These retention and remediation bureaucrats didn’t have to succeed. In fact, it was just as well if they didn’t, since the more they succeeded, the less profit Gougem College made from student loans. They just had to look busy. Meanwhile, they should think they were forwarding some higher purpose—social justice, sustainability or diversity. Director of Multicultural Affairs had a nicer ring than Director of Pell Grant Harvesting. If the Director felt better when he combined social justice education with his retention efforts—why not keep him happy? No harm done, so long as the grants kept coming in.

The grants kept coming in, but too many students still failed, even with a phalanx of retention and remediation bureaucrats working nine to five. Leo decided that Gougem College needed to soften the standards of its courses. Remediation and retention wasn’t so hard if you just had to get your students up to an eleventh-grade level. Or a ninth-grade one. Better yet, Gougem could authorize new courses that didn’t require college-level work at all. You could disguise a few more retention bureaucrats as the professors who taught Social Activism and Service Learning instead of The Italian Renaissance.

Leo could even claim that he’d done well by the students he let in. Enough still flunked out that Gougem could make a profit, but the ones who remained got all sorts of wonderful jobs. John Doe snagged a position as Assistant Director of Student Life at Chiseler Community, Richard Roe as Associate Director of Residential Life at Cozen Tech, and Jane Coe as Director of Sustainability at Flimflam College. Wendy Woe even got a job in the private sector, as Inclusion Assistant in the Human Resources department at Roxxon Oil. Wendy was thinking of going to graduate school, though, so she could come back as a professor of Social Justice at Gougem. Government loans have created a self-sustaining career track, where remediation bureaucrats fired up by social justice can train their students for the same sort of job at the college down the road.

If there’d never been a federal dollar heading toward higher education, Gougem would still have its complement of progressive ideologues masquerading as professors and administrators as they completed their long march through the institutions. But the incentives of our Federal student loan programs greatly increased their number, and gave them steady financial support. Federal student loans subsidize all the worst initiatives of progressive academics and administrators.

The great progressive bureaucracy in academia can’t be dispelled as easily as it was summoned up—we have played sorcerer’s apprentice. But if America changes the financial incentives of our student loan programs, we can begin to rein in the worst excesses of higher education.

Above all, legislators should make colleges and universities have some “skin in the game,” by making them co-responsible for student loans. In other words, if Danny Foe takes out $10,000 in student loans, flunks out, and then defaults on his loans, Gougem College should be responsible for repaying the government a portion of that $10,000. The National Association of Scholars recommends making institutions responsible for 30 percent of each student loan—that would mean that Gougem College would have to repay $3,000 of Default Danny’s debts.

There are a lot of Default Dannys in America. The Brookings Institution estimates that there are now $1.4 trillion dollars in student loans outstanding, and that “nearly 40 percent of borrowers may default on their student loans by 2023.” 8 million of the current 44 million student loan borrowers have already defaulted on their loans. Making colleges responsible for 30 percent of student loans nationwide would threaten them with billions of dollars of liability if they refused to change their ways. Even Harvard would blink if faced with a financial penalty of that size, and most colleges have far slenderer resources. 30 percent responsibility should provide a sufficient incentive even for the most ideologically committed Gougems in the country.

The main effect of this reform would be to encourage colleges and universities to admit only well-prepared students. Students who aren’t prepared for college are also bad risks for being able to repay a college loan down the road, as they tend to drop out without improving their chances for well-paid employment. And even those who graduate often do so in majors that aren’t much help in the labor market.

This reform would be good in and of itself, but it will also disproportionately reduce politicization on campus. Colleges that admit fewer badly prepared students won’t need to come up with ideological rationalizations to justify their presence.

The decrease in the number of remedial students would also disrupt the social-justice-and-remediation career track by decreasing the number of bureaucrats dedicated to retaining unqualified students, in all the “co-curricular” bureaucracies that euphemize retention and remediation. Reducing their numbers should likewise reduce campus politicization.

Reducing the number of unqualified students will also reduce the incentive to create hollow politicized courses for unqualified students. Identities studies courses, civic engagement courses, and the like, all give students credit for saying I Am My Identity—not least to provide a gut course for unprepared students. The faculty who teach such courses are often the most actively radical; their disappearance from the campus will also improve the intellectual climate.

Reducing the number of remedial students also reduces the need for communications departments, politicized bastions that smuggle left-wing propaganda into teaching basic writing.

Make colleges and universities co-responsible for student loans and they will also have an incentive to have students learn skills that actually qualify them for well-paying jobs in the workforce. Junk politicized courses, or junk politicization of solid courses, will run up against the incentive of colleges not to lose money. Colleges will also have an incentive to hire competent professors who teach solid skills, rather than politicized faculty or administrators who only offer ideological catechism.

Making colleges co-responsible for student loans won’t be a cure-all. The NAS recommends a large number of other reforms in our Freedom to Learn Amendments, which should work in complement with making colleges co-responsible for student loans. But that one reform would go a long way toward restoring a proper system of higher education.

Image: Mark Schellhase, Public Domain 

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