One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education

Editor’s Note: In celebration of the hundredth issue of Academic Questions, we present “One Hundred Great Ideas for Higher Education”—a wide range of ideas from a wide range of contributors with a wide range of interests in higher education. Some ideas are ready to be executed immediately, others to be contemplated for future action, some are brand new, others leavened with forgotten wisdom, but as a whole they offer incontrovertible proof of the enormous vitality among those who wish to see improvement and reform in higher education today. We thank all the contributors for their efforts, and many thanks also to Ashley Thorne, who helped the editors track and coordinate this ambitious project.

Richard Arum, Professor of Sociology and Education, New York University
Colleges and universities could administratively address the problem of declining academic rigor by instituting a simple change: for every course a student takes, the student’s transcript would report the individual grade received as well as the average grade students received in the course. The transcript would also report the overall grade point average (GPA) of the student as well as the course grade point average (CGPA).

Without impinging in any way on either the ability of individual faculty to grade students as they choose or the freedom of students to select courses as they see fit, this administrative reporting change would make readily apparent whether a student excelled at coursework, or instead excelled at choosing a path through higher education that held students in relative terms to lower academic standards. Incentives for faculty to grade leniently and for students to choose easy coursework—which has led the academy in recent years to a “race to the bottom”—would be significantly reduced.

Examining post-college transitions of recent college graduates, Josipa Roksa and I have found that course transcripts are seldom considered by employers in the hiring process. Transcripts would be significantly more meaningful with this simple and relatively costless administrative reporting change. If colleges and universities did not have the political will to make such changes on their own, access to federal financial aid dollars could be made dependent on institutional compliance. More than one-third of college students today study alone for their classes less than an hour per day and yet are able to achieve a 3.2 GPA. Parents, employers, and students have a right to know how this type of college success is accomplished.

Stephen H. BalchFounding President, National Association of Scholars; Founding Director, Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, Texas Tech University
Back in 2005, under pressure from David Horowitz and his congressional allies, American higher education’s flagship organization, the American Council on Education (ACE) issued a Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibility, its first sentence boldly equating “intellectual pluralism” with “academic freedom” as “central principles of American higher education.” On paper this represented an extraordinary concession to critics. In practice it has largely remained a dead letter.

It’s time to give it life. The ACE statement contemplated discussions about intellectual pluralism across America’s campuses. It also suggested involving larger publics. Let these discussions now begin.

One way to get them rolling would be through the creation of university and college “task forces” on intellectual pluralism, charged with assessing how best to promote its growth and preservation. Nothing would be more in keeping with the spirit of the ACE statement. Consisting of faculty, administrators, trustees, and representatives of the alumni and public, considerations of philosophic diversity and intellectual acumen would guide their appointment. After holding intramural and external forums, canvassing promising academic practices nationwide, and consulting literatures and experience on the preservation of pluralism in analogous environments, they would issue recommendations for establishing intellectual pluralism as that centerpiece of academic policy envisioned by the ACE.

Jay Bergman, Professor of History, Central Connecticut State University
Every American should know Western civilization, of which American culture and political institutions are an integral part.

By Western civilization I mean the constellation of ideas, political arrangements, ethical precepts, and ways of organizing society and the economy that are traceable to (1) the ethical monotheism of the Ancient Hebrews, adopted by Christianity, which implied that man, as God’s creation, has inherent worth and dignity, and (2) the tradition of rational inquiry, indispensable to science and technological progress, that began in Ancient Greece.

Much of Western civilization is distinctive, and several of its essential features are unique: a belief in progress and even, at times, in humanity’s perfectibility; a Promethean faith in man’s ability to harness nature; a strong emphasis—greater than in other civilizations—on individual rights and the inviolability of individual conscience; and a belief in moral principles, grounded in nature and discoverable through reason, that are timeless, absolute, and universal.

To be fully educated, students should know what Western civilization has given to America and to humanity. In practical terms, this means mandatory courses in Western history, philosophy, and literature. Without having at least some knowledge of these, American students cannot function as informed citizens in a country arguably superior to the various dictatorships in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East—themselves reflections of civilizations very different from Western civilization.

This does not imply that America is perfect. But to effect change, students must understand the history of their own civilization and society.

Jill Biden, Second Lady of the United States; Associate Professor of Developmental English, Northern Virginia Community College
As a teacher, a mom, and a grandmother, I have seen firsthand what a difference a great mentor can make in the lives of students. Having been an educator for more than thirty years, education for me is not an abstract policy debate—it’s about real people who lead real lives.

My students are men and women who return to school to get the training they need to reach the next level in their career. They are young people just out of high school trying to find their path in the world. And they are moms and dads squeezing in classes between full-time jobs, community activities, and raising kids.

They are all looking to make a better life for themselves and their families. In the middle of all that these students have going on, a mentor can provide a tremendous service just by being available—reaching out to show support, understanding, and a path to opportunity.

I have seen mentors help students set career goals and take steps to reach them. I have seen mentors let students know about resources or organizations that might be available to help them reach their goals. And I have seen mentors inspire confidence in students who need a little reassurance as they put their decisions into action.

From my perspective as a teacher, it’s easy to see how my students change over the course of their college careers. But one thing I’ve recognized is that the students don’t always see it themselves.
That’s where a great mentor can have a tremendous and inspiring effect. Mentors can help students chart and understand the dramatic growth they go through—and use all the tools available to build the career they want and pursue the life that they dream about.

I see every day that people across this country are making extraordinary efforts to improve their lives and the lives of their families. Mentors can help them turn those efforts into reality.

Richard Bishirjian, President, Yorktown University, Denver, Colorado and Yorktown University of the Americas, Gainesville, Florida
The system of voluntary academic accreditation of colleges and universities has morphed into a quasi-governmental system by which institutions of higher learning become “accredited” to offer federal grants and loans to their students. The student federal loan program is the hook by which successive presidential administrations have “federalized” higher education.

Historically, American higher education has benefited from a mix of types of colleges, universities, and vocational schools—something for everyone with benefits for all. With the federalization of higher education has come heightened “accreditation” standards that reflect a desire by the accreditors to keep their federal charters, and in the Obama administration regulations that aim to pick and choose winners.

Agencies that grant regional accreditation qualify as “Title IV eligible” and are “chartered” by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit institutions that offer students access to federal student grants and loans under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. Remove those programs from oversight of the accreditation process and qualify institutions directly by the U.S. Department of Education and you reintroduce considerations of “quality” into the accreditation process.

A good start toward higher education reform can begin by (1) transferring Title IV loan programs to private commercial credit markets, (2) decoupling access to Title IV programs from “accreditation,” and (3) killing the U.S. Department of Education.

Reducing the number of federal agencies by at least one agency should be the goal of the next president of the United States.

Jan H. Blits, Professor, University Honors Faculty, University of Delaware
Many popular proposals to improve higher education would actually weaken it. Faculty are letting academic standards slip—in the name of academic enrichment—and increasingly giving students academic credit for activities that are “academic” in only a lax sense. Not everything taught or learned is academic.

“Service learning” is a major example of such slippage.

Service learning claims to combine service and learning objectives: students participate in active education while addressing the concerns, needs, and hopes of their community. While communities are strengthened, proponents argue, students learn civic responsibility. However, service learning typically lacks academic rigor and faculty oversight, and is based on the student’s idiosyncratic, self-generated experience.

While I support performing community service (and performed service when I was in college), especially at a time when students are often highly self-absorbed, giving academic credit for volunteerism waters down standards and erodes the line between academic and nonacademic.

Also, under service learning students are not volunteers in any real sense. While not remunerated for their service, they are paid in easy grades and course credits. And the lesson they learn is not to be willing to help others freely, but to expect academic credit for everything and anything they do.

Douglas Campbell, Senior Lead Faculty, Business Administration, Walden University
As a university instructor, have you ever been told that you are not nurturing enough, or that your expectations are too high because you are making your students uncomfortable? Have you been advised to place your critical comments to students within a sandwich of positive comments? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then you are likely doing something very right.

The best learning takes place when students are challenged to defend their conclusions and to think more deeply than they thought possible. Of course, along the way some (or all) may be frustrated, they may complain, they may not like you, but in the end most of your students will value your class and respect you for what you taught them.

All academic disciplines have practical applications to dealing with reality. Once you have given them a solid foundation in facts, theories, and concepts, expect your students to develop well thought-out conclusions, and to be able to explain and defend themselves under your critical questioning. Challenge their answers and demand their reasoning, and when for convenience they try to agree with you, challenge that position. Never let them defend their conclusions with emotions: insist on intellectual analysis, logic, and rational thinking. Teach students that the ability to explain their conclusions—supported by facts and a logical, rational argument—is the mark of an educated person.

Robert Carle, Professor of Theology, The King’s College
Since student evaluations of faculty came into vogue in the 1960s, national GPAs have risen from around 2.5 to 3.4. In 1998, an “A” became the most common college grade in America. In 1970, college students spent forty hours a week attending class and studying—compared to less than thirty hours a week today. College professors so promiscuously award As that grades no longer spur student accomplishment or serve as an assessment tool for future employment.

In 2006, four Central Michigan University professors studied the student evaluations of 7,000 faculty members at 370 institutions in America and Canada, and they found physical attractiveness (“hotness”) to be the strongest predictor of positive student ratings. Other factors highly correlated with high ratings: easy grading standards, lax attendance policies, field trips, guest speakers, and popular (as opposed to classical) textbooks. No correlation exists between high ratings and teaching effectiveness, and there’s a negative correlation between high ratings and academic rigor. This study confirms what junior faculty members intuit. To boost your scores and keep your job, make class fun and implement relaxed grading, attendance, and deadline policies.

To remedy this epidemic of low standards, higher education administrators should reward professors for rigor and discipline in the classroom. Evaluating rigor is complicated, and it will require a thoughtful and honest peer review process. However, colleges and universities can make two simple changes immediately: (1) make realistic grading standards a factor in promotion and tenure decisions and (2) eliminate numerical scoring from student evaluation forms, thereby forcing administrators to review student comments, which are often more revealing than numerical scores.

William Casement, Independent Scholar; Author, Making College Right: Heretical Thoughts and Practical Proposals
College rankings are a fixture in the business of higher education. U.S. News & World Report is the market share leader, with rival publications by the likes of Forbes, Kiplinger’s, Washington Monthly, Newsweek, and Princeton Review. The public eagerly consults these rankings, while academics object to them as highly misleading. Using current technology, there is a way the public can get even more of what it wants while being led to recognize that what the rankings measure is more subjective than authoritative.

Let’s create an online supersystem that collects the metrics from the various ranking systems and places the categories and data of each side-by-side so viewers can select the information they need to evaluate colleges—from SAT scores, faculty salaries, student debt at graduation, alumni giving, quality of housing and dining, and many more factors. Other information can be added, such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s curriculum survey “” The weight each factor receives is subject to choice; pressing a button gathers the selected data to reveal a customized list.

This approach is already available on many college-finder websites, but without the aura of magic formulas and many categories of data the “official” rankings employ. That data can be shared voluntarily by the various publications, but should they decline, it can be obtained from the same sources from which they draw (the Common Data Set, U.S. Department of Education, etc.).

High school guidance counselors will endorse the supersystem since it promotes their constant message to prospective college students to find a “fit” rather than a bumper sticker. And the public will enjoy playing expert online as it learns that whatever formula is used to rank colleges and universities is arbitrary.

Felicia Sanzari Chernesky, Managing and Poetry Editor, Academic Questions
Consider this the proposal of a frustrated parent who knows too much about what’s going on in colleges and universities for her own peace of mind: Only accept and enroll students in college who can read, write, do basic math, place the American Civil War on a timeline, and honor the Golden Rule. Required first-year courses titled “The College Experience” are code for “No Child Left Behind passed me along, but actually left me behind… Help! I’m not ready for this. I don’t even know how to take responsibility for completing and handing in my homework yet!”

How can we expect to solve the ills plaguing our colleges and universities if we’re not also working hard(er) to rebuild what’s broken down in the high schools—and often even earlier?


Roger Clegg, President and General Counsel, Center for Equal Opportunity
Sustainability Trumps Diversity

Save ink and paper by eliminating race boxes on application and employment forms.

This will get rid of that pesky temptation to discriminate against some groups (whites, Asians) and in favor of others (African Americans, Latinos) in college admissions. Admit and hire without regard to skin color or national origin, and cut down fewer trees while you’re at it.

Go green! (And forget about black, white, brown, etc.)

More Transparency for Diversity

Universities’ pursuit of “diversity” among the students they admit and the faculty they hire is controversial, but it’s hard to understand how anyone could argue that this pursuit should be shrouded in secrecy.
Schools should be required to divulge what they spend on efforts to promote diversity. In “Less Academics, More Narcissism,” Heather Mac Donald documented how even in California—which has limited these efforts by a state constitutional amendment and is facing a budget crisis of staggering proportions—the price tag has been substantial.

And the price goes beyond administrative and personnel costs, as I discussed in the Winter 2011 Academic Questions in “Affirmative Discrimination and the Bubble.” For example, not only are better qualified applicants for student and faculty slots rejected, but the evidence is mounting that the less qualified individuals accepted instead are often being set up to fail—it’s the “mismatch effect.” It makes sense for schools to reveal, in this case, the graduation and bar passage rate, etc., for students admitted with a particular GPA and SAT/LSAT/MCAT score. A student of any race or ethnicity about to take on a large student loan debt might be quite interested in his odds of obtaining a degree at a specific school.

Finally and most fundamentally, schools should be required to reveal when they are granting preferential treatment on the basis of skin color and national origin—and if they are, how much weight is being given and what steps they are taking to ensure that the preferential treatment falls within the legal constraints established by the Supreme Court. We can debate whether such discrimination is a good idea or not, but surely no one would argue that the discrimination should be done secretly and/or illegally—especially at public or publicly-funded schools. Legislation has been introduced to require this reporting as a matter of federal law, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has endorsed this approach.

David Clemens, Founder and Coordinator, Monterey Peninsula College Great Books Program
James Burke’s original BBC series Connections (1978) ends with a plea for access to the information we need to make decisions that affect our future. Progress, he claimed, depends on “how easy [it is] for knowledge to spread.” Thirty-four years ago, access seemed a reasonable goal. Then, less than ten years ago, Web 2.0 exploded, and we got access all right, even on our phones: web pages by the trillion, Facebook, data mining, Wikipedia, MOOCs, archives, Google, data bases, Siri, and a distressing informational plasticity… We also got turned inside out with images and memory now located outside our bodies. What education must do is to return imagination and memory to our core, private selves where they create what George Steiner called the “inner echo chamber of our identifiable being.” Because of repeated hearing, in almost any situation, American adults can recall an applicable popular song lyric though rarely can they quote from a religious text, great book, or poem.  Yet robust, patterned language strengthens the inner self against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and what Steiner called the “scandalous fact” of mortality. Most colleges fail to convey a sense of history and continuity, of creation and beauty, located within the self rather than dispersed in the cloud. Having access is not the same as knowing, remembering, imagining, or feeling. Students enter college empty and leave empty. Fill them up is my prescription. Take a string of meaningful or beautiful or enigmatic words (Conrad, Yeats, Woolf, Lincoln) and have students speak those words until they memorize them.  Repeat, again and again.

Andrew Delbanco, Columbia University Humanities Professor; Author, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be
Graduate students are seldom asked to articulate the “why” of what they do, to learn to convey its significance to a lay audience, even to express for themselves the fascination they feel for it. If we want to foster strong teaching in our colleges—the single most important factor in motivating and inspiring college students—this must change. The research culture of graduate school must take teaching more seriously.

This is starting to happen—mostly in the form of “teaching centers” where graduate teaching assistants work with master teachers on such matters as how to develop syllabi, lead discussion, or handle cases of suspected plagiarism. But we have a long way to go until good teaching becomes part of what academic departments expect from the future scholar-teachers to whom they award a Ph.D.

In my field of literary studies, for example, every doctoral oral examination should require the candidate to make a case for why a given author might interest a skeptical or indifferent college student. What makes the author alive today? Why should this novel or poem or play written years ago still matter? In other words, how would you teach this subject?

College teaching is a delicate and difficult art. It requires confidence and tact. It means putting students under pressure—without degenerating into badgering or bullying. It requires making clear explanations of complex ideas, but also waiting out the silence after posing a difficult question. We need to prepare future scholars for these challenges, all of which, if they are lucky enough to get a teaching job, they will face soon enough.

George Dent, Professor of Law, Case Western Reserve University School of Law
Big-time sports are corrupting higher education. They should be abolished.

Some of the abuses are obvious. Star athletes who lack the academic ability to do college work are nonetheless recruited with offers of full scholarships and often with side-payments and sex. Once admitted, they get special tutors to help them pass gut courses and receive generous grades. Competing in sports may help build diligence, teamwork, and other positive qualities, but this can be achieved with club sports. Big-time sports focus vast amounts of resources on just a few students and reduce the rest to spectators rather than competitors.

In the end, however, even college athletes gain little from this “generosity.” The powers that be have worked to raise the embarrassingly low graduation rates for athletes at some universities, but very little attention is paid to what happens to athletes who manage to graduate. Most face dim employment prospects.

Less obvious but more pernicious are the indirect effects of major college sports. Too much student attention is focused on games and the ubiquitous partying that surrounds them. Whose fault is this? After all, if the administration gives so much money and publicity to sports, isn’t it urging students to be avid fans?

Huge sums are spent on athletic facilities that serve few students. A few sports programs can draw large revenues, but for the vast majority of schools big-time sports remain unprofitable. Administrators fear that downgrading sports would cause alumni giving and donations to fall, but they just need to adjust their marketing strategies. Many colleges that are highly successful in fund-raising do not have big-time sports.
Deprived of big-time college sports, the public might also pay more attention to academics at State U.

Candace De Russy, Higher Education Reformer; Former Trustee, State University of New York
Faculty salaries comprise a large portion of campus budgets, and professors in general can reasonably be expected to carry a greater teaching load than they do at present. Many fully tenured professors today teach only a few hours a week, although they are paid considerably more than the median income in their local communities. The role, quality, and cost of teaching assistants in higher education classrooms also relate to this issue. Students deserve as much contact as possible with an experienced and expert professoriate.

In the nation’s public higher education systems, the governors’ staff engages in negotiations with the unions representing professors. Whether individual campuses are directly in charge of these negotiations or not, governing boards should make their priorities known to negotiators, receive briefings on the status of negotiations, and otherwise take a more active role. In addition to tracking more effectively time spent by professors in undergraduate classrooms and the use of graduate assistants for teaching and grading, there is a need to reconsider current sabbatical practices. Only slightly raising the student-to-faculty ratio and requiring each professor to teach one more hour per week can save considerable sums.

Donald Downs, Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science, Law, and Journalism, University of Wisconsin–Madison
The moral charter for higher education is to promote the advancement of knowledge and the pursuit of truth. This obligation requires intellectual freedom, diversity of thought, and intellectual honesty. As Academic Questions readers know all too well, we have not lived up to this obligation in recent decades. It is time to reaffirm our heritage.

I propose that institutions of higher education require freshman students to take a core course on intellectual and academic freedom. The course could be for one or two credits and would entail reading and engaging in class discussion on several classic works in free thought. Alternatively, the students could simply be required to read such works in advance of or during their first year on campus and subsequently attend a discussion session. Many schools presently assign readings to all freshmen in this manner, but my proposal would focus on freedom of thought each year because of its cardinal significance for higher education.

My proposal has two potential drawbacks. First, what should be read? Second, who would teach the readings? A politically correct institution or teacher could use the occasion to disparage free thought, much like the University of Pennsylvania administrator who claimed in the 1990s that the word “individual” is a code word for oppression.
Alas, all reform runs this risk, but this should not discourage us from trying.

Thomas Drucker, Department of Mathematical and Computer Sciences, University of Wisconsin–Whitewater
Dum Spiro, Spero.

When World War I broke out, the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater expressed its sense of patriotism by eliminating German from the curriculum. At the same time, Latin was deleted, perhaps because it was associated with German scholarship. German was readmitted to the council of languages after the war, but Latin never reappeared. It is time for universities across the country to return to requiring Latin as part of the undergraduate curriculum.
We’ve no need to make the case for the value of Latin as training in mental discipline. Louis MacNeice’s observations about Greek in “Autumn Journal, XIII” apply a fortiori to Latin, supplying “a lesson in logic” and being “good for the brain.” Understanding the vocabulary of Romance languages becomes simpler on a Latin foundation, and the grammars of many languages are easier to appreciate by comparison with Latin.

Beyond simple linguistic advantages, however, a familiarity with Latin literature puts the student in touch with aspects of culture and civilization from which we have drifted too far. Questions about the best form of government were debated in Latin for millennia before they were taken up by speakers and writers of English. Our understanding of the natural world comes from works like Newton’s Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis. As we seek to understand our place in the world, Cicero and Lucretius remind us of considerations that have lost their force only for those who are too lazy to contemplate them.
Let us restore the connection to the world of wisdom (and folly) expressed in Latin.

Joseph Epstein, Author, most recently of Essays in Biography
The condition of undergraduate education strikes me as so sad, so wildly screwed up, and so heavily screened off from reality that no single sweeping reform is likely to help. A number of small reforms, though, might make for a beginning. Two I suggest are a dress code and a rigid protocol of address. I suggest these not for students, but for faculty.

If male teachers taught in jacket and necktie and female teachers in dresses or skirts an aura of seriousness would be lent to the proceedings. It would make plain that the classroom is not a democratic but a hierarchical setting, with the teacher above the student.

When I first began teaching in 1973 my contemporaries among the professoriate came to class in jeans and T-shirts. (One among them, whom I always thought of as an academic cowboy, wore jeans and a jean jacket; he eventually left the university to go on to a deservedly obscure career as a failed filmmaker.) As a man in his thirties, I didn’t own any jeans, but I did own suits and jackets and a vast quantity of neckties, bow and four-in-hand, and so decided to go with those. Being dressed as an adult gave me a small but genuine edge in authority over my students. I hope it also conveyed to them that I might—just might—be able to get a job downtown, selling shoes, say, and wasn’t one of those people who, in the crushing Shavian formulation, cannot.

The other question before me was whether to address my students by first or last names. I really hadn’t decided this until the first day of the first class I taught. Calling the roll, last name first, I came to the name “Pipal, Faustin,” to which a red-haired boy responded, “Would you mind calling me Frosty?” The question was settled. “I call all my students by their last names, Mr. Pipal,” I announced, a policy from which I never varied. I discovered that I was a minority of one among my colleagues in doing so. Since that time we have advanced to the point that students fairly regularly address their teachers by their first names. Perhaps by now there are teachers who themselves wish to be called Frosty.

Dressing respectably for the classroom, calling students by their last names—two small steps for the dignity of teaching, and maybe, who knows, one large step for undergraduate education.

Bill Felkner, Director, The Hummel Report; President, Rhode Island Association of Scholars
Some would say academia is already disconnected from the real world, and in some ways I would agree. But today the academy has yielded to modern economic realities, maintaining vocational relevance by tailoring itself to the demands of various professional organizations and policies. This is nowhere more so on display than in higher education intended for public professions such as teaching, social work, planning, and administration.

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) explained it best: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

There is no better example of academia prescribing orthodoxy than with the adoption of “social justice” as the paradigm through which to teach and judge the effectiveness of candidates for these professions. Enforcing allegiance to such terms has been the hallmark of professions at the vanguard of the Great Society for fifty years. But poverty still exists. Have we not gone far enough or are we going in the wrong direction? Are we free to ask?

When does life begin?
Is intelligence learned?
Does corporal punishment aid in learning?
Does sexual orientation impact parental efficacy?

Does just reading some of these questions make you uncomfortable?
Academia should be a safety zone where students are free to pursue the radical and be proven wrong, or occasionally find their way to unexpected truths. The alternative is an arrogance that we already know what there is to know and we shift from critical thinking into guided thinking.

Our goal isn’t to protect and promote a philosophy, or a profession, but to learn what isn’t known. Sometimes you have to go through what isn’t accepted to get there.

Jason Fertig, Assistant Professor of Management, University of Southern Indiana
Most high school students today do not ask, “Am I going to college?” They ask, “Where am I going to college?”

That needs to change.

The press throws around the statistic that individuals with college degrees earn more money over their lifetimes than those without those degrees. But, as college statistics teaches, correlation does not always equal causation. There is more to that wage premium than an upward sloping line.

Many students are simply spending five to six figures to obtain a workforce readiness certificate. This bubble of inflated tuition prices and degree value has to burst—so let’s fix things rather than mop up the mess.

Programs like MITx and iTunes U use modern technology to teach twenty-first-century knowledge and skills to anyone with a computer and Internet connection. And organizations like the Teaching Company establish that one can acquire a classical education without the ivory tower.

The one-size-fits-all college degree is obsolete. Let’s establish a new cycle of real education and learning.

Janice Fiamengo, Professor of English, University of Ottawa, Canada
Every poetry course should include an oral and written memory assignment of at least fourteen lines.

Memorization of poetry all but disappeared from the classroom a half-century ago, dismissed with most other memory work as mechanical and perhaps damaging. Current pedagogical approaches tend to ask students to respond to readings imaginatively rather than merely (it is thought) to know them.

Memorization does not guarantee comprehension, and good teachers would still need to engage students in sense-making and analysis. But memorization would ensure that attention is paid to every word and mark on the page, to their form, order, and arrangement. Phrases normally glossed over would now be spelled out, sounded aloud, and practiced with varying emphases. The aural component of poetry, so often neglected, would become vividly manifest.

Memorizing would encourage parsing phrases and clauses, noticing rhyme and rhythm, marking punctuation points, breath breaks, line endings; attention would be drawn to word pairings, echoes and repetition, half-rhyme and parallelism. Led to recognize that understanding aids memory, students would be encouraged to look up word meanings and analyze subject-predicate links and patterns of modification and apposition.

Given institutional inertia and the decline of poetry instruction generally, my proposal might seem the ultimate in antiquated idealism or a radically counter-cultural strategy of resistance—but it is certainly a workable and useful exercise. Its effect: over the course of obtaining their degrees students would sharpen their language skills and also amass a repertoire of remembered poems that in future years might bring considerable pleasure and comfort.

Chester Finn, President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
The greatest cause of today’s undergraduates not learning much is their preoccupation with tempting—one might even say seductive—alternatives. In a word, they’re having way too much fun. The most alluring of those alternatives could be kept within bounds via two simple additions to all food served to students in university dining rooms (and food courts, etc.): disulfiram and the modern equivalent of saltpeter.

The former medication “causes unpleasant effects when even small amounts of alcohol are consumed.”

The latter—well, you already know what it is supposed to do.

  Less booze. Less sex. More studying. Problem eased if not solved.

Will Fitzhugh, Founder, The Concord Review,
It would be great and interesting for all concerned if every college student had to present a one-hour talk on some topic on which he had recently done research and written a substantial paper. Too few college students—if any other than the salutatorian and the valedictorian—ever stand and say something academic to an audience.

Those invited to such presentations should include the faculty in the department of the topic covered in the talk, the presenter’s fellow students and friends, as well as other interested persons, including members of the general population of the town or city where the college or university is planted.

Attending such a presentation would be time-consuming, of course, and the faculty audience might be limited to adjuncts and those with lighter research and consulting schedules. But having to read their words face-to-face to careful listeners would lead students to think longer and with greater care about what they write.

Terrence F. Flower, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Physics, St. Catherine University
I have taught online in one form or another since 1981. During this time technology has dramatically advanced and with it, the ways technology can be used to help teach a particular unit of instruction. The key to success is to focus on teaching the curriculum and not the technology. It has been said that anything more than chalk and blackboard is razzle-dazzle, but at one point chalk and blackboard was an advancement in technology.

Rather than focus on the limitations of online classes (indeed, face-to-face classes on campus also have limitations), consider the advantages. If airlines can keep their pilots’ skills current via the use of computer-based simulators so too we ought to be able to use technology to teach students in almost every discipline. I have taught calculus-based physics and astronomy online—but again, I teach the subject matter, not the technology.

The biggest hindrance to using technology to enhance instruction is administrative reluctance to recognize that course development involves more than expecting faculty to adopt a new textbook. A university will have to invest time and money to develop the online curriculum along with the technology. The leadership for a successful program will have to come from the curricular experts, the practitioners, i.e., a bottom-up approach. We have seen that really successful online programs are those with a successful physical presence. 

David Fott, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director, Great Works Academic Certificate Program, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
It is difficult to fight grade inflation, but here is a step in the right direction: have all of the faculty in a department meet informally—preferably over lunch and nonalcoholic drinks— twice a year for the sole purpose of discussing grading standards. There should be no pressure to arrive at a consensus about what is A work, what is B work, and so on. Rather, ask faculty to explain—i.e., justify—their standards to one another.

Robin Fox, University Professor of Social Theory, Rutgers University
Most students attending four-year colleges really don’t need or even want to be there. Let’s give them alternatives.

Only 3 to 4 percent of students went on to university when I attended college in the fifties in the UK. Considered a fairly odd thing to do, college was for nerds and intellectuals unfit for anything else (except those who went to play cricket). Two-year teachers’ colleges (like the old Normal Schools) took care of those who wanted to teach. The rest got jobs, saved up to get married, and moved up through night classes at the technical colleges and the national trade and guild associations, which gave professional certificates (and letters to put after your name) in everything from plumbing, electrical, mechanics, accounting, dentistry, architecture, music, law, art, design, building, engineering, pharmacy, to nursing and even medicine.

Now the UK has fallen into the American trap and everyone has to “go to college.” This is purely a status thing.

State institutions in America have always fulfilled some of this role and they could continue to do so, but what we need is a reduction in residential four-year institutions and an expansion of the community college system, with primacy given to extension and online courses for those already working in the profession or skill of their choice. I recently read an article in USA Today praising the brilliant new idea of awarding “certificates” of professional competence rather than requiring four years of residential study. Welcome to the past.

Among college students, those doing science, engineering and math degrees should attend for free, while those who study arts, social studies, media studies, cultural studies (cultural anything), and particularly women’s and gender studies should have to pay double. Then let the market sort it out.

Frederic Fransen, President, Donor Advising, Research & Educational Services, LLC
The most exciting opportunity in higher education today is creating incredible educational “environments” for students. Digital tools are eliminating the need to congregate where professors live. This opens new worlds to students, exciting environments or those better suited to contemplation. Urban or rural worlds. Worlds potentially safer than the environments many students live in today. I imagine a catalog of locations where the educational platform and format move seamlessly with student from place-to-place. How about six weeks in Athens, followed by six weeks in Washington, D.C.? Or for those who like the snow, a winter in the Rockies...

Current thinking on education and technology indicates that the best learning is hybrid. For this reason, digital-only degrees will never equate to those from residential colleges. The new environments I imagine solve this problem by combining online education with supplementary low-cost residential programs. For the price of room and board, a student can get a better education in a more interesting place.

David French, Senior Counsel, American Center for Law and Justice
For all too many of our nation’s students, the college experience has become the equivalent of a high-priced, alcohol-soaked Disneyland. According to a recent study of 30,000 high school freshmen, these students spent an average of 8.4 hours per week studying and 10.2 hours per week drinking. Other studies have placed the average hourly study burden at fifteen hours per week, down from twenty-four hours four decades ago.

Relaxed study habits lead to, well, ignorance. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has found that at some schools civic knowledge actually decreases after four years of college.

In response, I propose the simplest, least costly reform plan in the history of higher education: double the average student workload. Assign eight books instead of four. Six essays instead of three, and so forth.

Make the requirement universal (otherwise, students will flock from the harder to the easier classes), impose penalties for noncompliance, and watch the learning outcomes improve, the Wednesday and Thursday night parties die out, and marvel at fraternity houses full of students reading rather than retching.

There is precedent for broad-based teaching requirements. When I taught at Cornell Law School the administration controlled grade inflation by implementing a mandatory B+ class average—ending the practice of some professors of sprinkling As around the class like croutons on a salad. Simply put, a little hard work never hurt anybody.

Bruce Gans, Professor of English and Founder and Director, Great Books Curriculum, Wilbur Wright College
It is falsely assumed that undergraduates have learned to write grammatically correct English. Faculty members who assign term papers are constantly made aware of this—as are the subsequent employers of such graduates. The solution is to issue an honest statement of what a passing grade in standard composition signifies and include it in the course catalog. But a college can begin by giving students a two-hour in-class assignment to write a two-page double-spaced expository essay on some aspect of their personal experience. This essay would be evaluated for grammar and syntax according to the college’s written guidelines on exactly how many major fundamental errors in grammar and syntax it may contain and the writing still be deemed proficient.

In reality, the number of permissible fundamental grammatical, syntactical errors expected of a college graduate is zero. However, as long as there are no official guidelines on proficiency in composition, an institution cannot confront or discipline a faculty member who is practicing social promotion—a long-common practice. If colleges discipline and fire faculty who pass incompetent composition students, writing standards are likely to rise.

If the college refuses to put an absolute limit on the acceptable number of fundamental grammatical errors it ought to be required to state in the catalog an honest description of what the passing grade signifies. It would read something like this: “The recipient of this passing grade in composition is not to be considered proficient in composition. This college in no way states or implies that students issued a passing grade can compose five hundred words without making a fundamental blunder on an average of once every hundred words, over and over again.”

Anu Garg, Founder,
We all know the origins of the names of our fields: that anthropology comes from anthropos, Greek for human, for example, or that engineering deals with engines or machines. We learn the history of our chosen area of study. But that’s about it. A course in etymology would help students dig a little deeper under the words. It would serve as the foundation upon which a student can erect any edifice of knowledge.

Language is the official gazette of humankind. Layers of history are buried within the etymology of words. Peel a layer and see where we have been. Even though “she” may command a space shuttle today, a “lady” once was, literally, a loaf kneader (lord: loaf guard). Humanity’s footprints are all over its language.

Etymology gives us a better appreciation of words and what’s lurking beneath them. It shows the connection among fields. It helps us see patterns. It reveals our common bonds. Engineering is ultimately about solving problems with “ingenuity”: that’s what the word meant originally.

James Garland, Author, Saving Alma Mater: A Rescue Plan for America’s Public Universities
A key problem with online education is a human and not a technological failing. Students sign up for online courses with high expectations, but relatively few have the self-discipline and habits of mind to stick it out. Without peers to study with and fend off distractions, the odds of completing a course drop precipitously.

Why not use technology to create a unique social networking site tailored to each student’s needs as an integral part of online coursework? Enrollees would complete a questionnaire that captures demographic information—the goal being to create a snapshot of the student’s life and interests, analogous to information admissions officers collect at traditional residential colleges.

With this information, the school (or, more precisely, the school’s computers) could create virtual classrooms of, say, twenty-five students with similar backgrounds, interests, and goals, which would become the students’ personal social group for the course. Thus, a virtual class might consist of single mothers, casual hobbyists, or Ph.D. physicists—in other words, traits that foster a community that makes sense for those students.

Students of a virtual classroom could interact via email, a Facebook-like page, Skype-arranged conference calls—all arranged automatically by computer, which could even schedule regular “class meetings.” To preserve privacy, each student would opt in at self-determined levels of involvement.

Charles Geshekter, Professor Emeritus of History, California State University, Chico
One sweeping suggestion to faculty: Assign two important books students that must read before their sophomore year: Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness, and Jonathan Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. And a few specific recommendations to promote growth in character and maturity:

• Advise—even better, require—students to attend all classes, sit near the front of the room, pay attention at all times, bring no food to class, and turn off all cell phones and iPods.

• Encourage students to ask questions should you say something that seems unpersuasive to them. If they prefer to ask you questions during office hours, advise them to do some research and thinking before the appointment.

• Suggest they develop the habit of keeping track of new words and learning their definitions. Encourage them to record new words in a small notebook that fits into their pocket, to alphabetize the pages, and to buy a compact paperback Webster’s Dictionary. Persuade them to record a new word as they encounter it in the notebook, but to continue reading, then look up the word’s meaning afterwards and compose a four-to-five-word definition. Tell them: “If you learn to say that word properly five times a day, you will own it.”

• Encourage students to establish friendly contact with fellow students who share their seriousness of purpose and are taking the class to learn, not to waste time. Such classmates can become invaluable assignment and study allies.

Andrew Gillen, Research Director, Education Sector
As college costs continually rise, students are increasingly concerned with the impact attending college will have on future jobs and earnings. Yet virtually no data exist to help inform this important decision. Students flock to law schools and English Ph.D. programs unaware that job prospects for graduates from these programs are terrible. Students should not have to make such important decisions essentially blindfolded.

The solution is deceptively simple: have the federal government provide earnings outcomes for every program that grants degrees. This is also deceptively easy to accomplish by requiring colleges to submit a list of graduates to the U.S. Department of Education, and matching that list to already existing IRS or Social Security earnings databases. This data could provide a wealth of information on employment outcomes to potential students while protecting their privacy.

David Gordon, Professor of History, City University of New York
Too many colleges and universities have abandoned traditional, broadly based liberal arts curricula for new, minimalist common core requirements.

It was no mere caprice that formerly obliged students to experience a wide variety of disciplines before pursuing one with special intensity. It is one of the hallmarks that makes our higher educational system superior to the European, or any other.

The creativity of American college graduates, so admired and envied by the rest of the world, is born out of a diversity of academic experience. Creativity cannot be taught, but the environment in which it is nurtured can be created. It can also be destroyed. You cannot think creatively through a multiple of disciplines unless you have had some experience of them.

It is sometimes suggested that limiting general requirements can free students to take more high-level courses, and to explore other fields and interests. But that’s what a broader core curriculum is already meant to do. With a reduced core, students will be able to avoid important and more challenging courses. In an age of globalization, many graduate without any foreign language instruction. Millions of America’s future voters enter the world knowing nothing of America’s, or the world’s, political history.

However worthy (and practical), the principle aim of higher education cannot be to produce better skilled operatives in a post-industrial economy. The preservation of a challenging liberal arts core curriculum will assure the nation a future generation that can not only function in the marketplace, but also understand and contribute creatively to the world.

Mary Grabar, Founder, Dissident Prof (; Instructor, Department of English, Emory University
Let’s restore books to their status as sacred objects and keep them free of coffee and taco stains. As Plato might say, there is no reason that the hungry Youth cannot go to the library café.

Routinely employing such self-restraint—refraining from eating and drinking while studying in the library—would instill in students a reverence for learning and respect for elders, both living and dead. As Plato’s student noted, habits form character.

Perhaps once these overgrown children experience such self-discipline, they might begin shedding flip-flops, baseball caps, and ear buds when they come to class. They might even rise when the professor enters, having completed their assigned readings, eager for intelligent discussion about the eternal verities and themes of justice, tragedy, comedy, and irony.

Victor Davis Hanson, Senior Fellow in Classics and Military History, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; Author, most recently of The End of Sparta
Acceptance of an academic master’s degree in lieu of the standard teaching credential would do wonders for higher education and the public schools. The power of the schools of education and their deleterious therapeutic curricula hinge on a captive audience of would-be teachers in need of “certification.” If a master’s degree could substitute for the credential, I think a majority of future history or English teachers would prefer a fifth year of more intensive academic study of Western civilization or Shakespeare than the usual race/class/gender indoctrination or “how to teach” classes that are now integral to the credentialing industry. It is a perverse thing that we turn loose MAs and Ph.D.s without official credentialing training on university and junior college students and they seem to do just fine without a stamp of approval from the school of education, but would not allow them to teach a freshman Spanish course or junior high U.S. history class. As it is, we have thousands of newly credentialed teachers who claim to know “how” to teach, but often lack the expertise and knowledge of “what” to teach.

Not only would resources in the university (staffing, curricula, funding) shift to academic programs away from the school of education, but the nation’s students would receive sounder education and less indoctrination from a high school teacher with a master’s thesis on the Renaissance than a BA/credential counterpart with courses in role-playing and diversity.

Nathan Harden, Author, Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad
Universities around the country have started hosting presentations by for-profit corporations in the sex industry. Sex toy companies present kinky workshops in university classrooms. Porn producers and performers show their films and lecture students about bedroom techniques.

Why all this interest in integrating XXX material into the classroom? It started a decade ago when Yale first hosted its infamous “Sex Week.” It was Yale administrators who first saw the pedagogical potential of porn. Every other year since 2002 they have hosted a series of lectures and workshops known as “Sex Week at Yale,” including sex toy giveaways, screenings of violent porn, student lingerie shows, how-to sadomasochism lessons, and at least one lecture by a topless porn star. (Had I not witnessed most of these things as a Yale undergrad, I wouldn’t have believed them possible.)

Many universities have followed Yale’s bawdy lead: Brown, Northeastern, the University of Kentucky, Indiana University, and Washington University in St. Louis have hosted Sex Weeks. Harvard and Cornell just jumped aboard. Numerous sex toy companies and porn producers and performers now make campus tours, speaking regularly in America’s classrooms.

As keen as most of our nation’s academic leaders are to profess their progressive concern for women’s rights, I wonder how they would have felt a few years ago during a classroom screening of a porn film featuring “rape fantasy” during Yale’s Sex Week. I’d like to hear their explanation for what playing host to the sex industry and obsessing over students’ sex lives has to do with the mission of a great university.

Carol Iannone
, Editor-at-Large, Academic Questions
I suggest requiring all incoming freshmen to read C.S. Lewis’s brilliant short book, The Abolition of Man (1943), write a précis and response, and be prepared to discuss in breakout sessions during orientation. It is the shortest, straightest, purest, and most powerful refutation of relativism there has ever been, taking the reader step-by-logical-step through what it would really mean if we accept that there is no transcendent moral law or objective truth, and it were up to each individual—and by extension each generation—to decide what values should govern life.

What actually happens is that we find ourselves ruled by some people who take some piece of the moral law that they like and manage to impose on others. The end result in the future would be the technological manipulation of nature by those who happen to have power, to the point where what we recognize as definably human would virtually disappear.

This book, which began as a lecture, can be a life-changer for students who have the ability to take it in. It is unlikely that anyone who reads it with intelligence will easily be able to resort to simpleminded clichés such as “It’s all relative,” “Values vary from person to person,” and “No one can define right and wrong for anyone else.” Students may through stubbornness or reflex or force of habit continue to spout such ideas, but a mustard seed of healthy doubt will have been planted and will affect their responses to what they study.

Jonathan Imber
, Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology, Wellesley College; Editor-in-Chief, Society
Many colleges and universities today use student evaluation questionnaires to evaluate a teacher’s performance. The origin of this seemingly benign tool has much to do with its abuse as a weapon of conformity. The student protesters of the 1960s demanded greater “participation” in the life of the university. Administrators saw an opportunity at appeasement that also translated into a mechanism for oversight, which in the long growth of university administration means the production of ever more information about everyone and everything. Students could be part of the process of “democratically” supporting or opposing such decisions as tenure and promotion.

The result has been granting permission to students to offer anonymously any kind of opinion they want to express, however inane or cruel. Of course, teachers ought to be able to take it, but consider how profoundly the reversal of fortune now is: it was once expected that students ought to be able to “take it,” that is, to respond to tough standards, to hard lessons, to failure, to anything that might contribute to the building of character. Now, the students must be treated carefully, and the teacher has been put into the dock. To improve teaching, abolish student evaluations of teachers.

Robert L Jackson
, Associate Provost, The King’s College
To reform American higher education, I would promote a national collegiate-level parliamentary debate under the following motion: “This House believes that Moral Truth should be considered the essential guiding principle of human reason, whereby every person seeks to discern right from wrong, good from evil.” Or, more simply, “This House presumes Moral Truth innocent until proven guilty.”

Joanne Jacobs
, Blogger, and
I’d like to see a program that would analyze a student’s grades, test scores, and self-reported motivation and study skills to predict future success. Let’s say Ned Ninth-grader learns he has a 1 percent chance of earning a medical degree (his stated ambition), a 10 percent chance at a bachelor’s degree, a 20 percent chance at an associate degree, a 50 percent shot at a vocational certificate, and a 65 percent chance of a high school diploma.
He gets information on what jobs he might do if he reaches various levels and what he can do now to increase his options. Maybe Ned will work harder, raise his grades, and have a real shot at an associate degree in radiology or a pharmacy tech certificate. Honest information would be great for students—and would reduce colleges’ remedial burden.

Christina Jeffrey
, Lecturer, Wofford College
American Higher Education has done a 180 in the last forty years. Colleges were once expected to act in loco parentis—in place of a parent—even at many coed schools. But just as colleges were abandoning responsibility for their young charges, Congress passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974. Soon, neither colleges nor parents were watching out for the kids.

The supervision gap resulting from ending in loco parentis and legally preventing parents from getting information about their kids gave the sexual revolution—as well as the lending industry—even more steam. Now students could easily borrow money without parental knowledge.

Unfortunately, among the pushers were their own colleges. Students were urged to support their school, the teams, the clubs, etc., by getting affinity credit cards. By 2008, over 80 percent of students had credit cards; 47 percent of them had four or more.

Parents need access to official student records. They pay the bills; they are responsible to clean up the mess if their children have problems.

More colleges are encouraging parents and students to discuss allowing parent access to student records by having students sign a waiver. A FERPA waiver, which can be revoked at any time, allows named parties to obtain any official records covered by the waiver (

Colleges should not be offering credit cards to current students whose parents are paying their bills. It may be legal to do so, but it is not ethical.

April Kelly-Woessner
, Chair, Department of Political Science, Elizabethtown College
Many young students have little appreciation for the cost and value of their education. For some, parents pay the bill. For others, their tuition is paid by taxpayers, private donors, or by their fellow students. Students take out loans, with little appreciation for the magnitude of their debt or the strain it will place on them later in life. As a result, college students are not cost-sensitive consumers and the price of higher education continues to grow. If students were required to work for a percentage of their college tuition, the demand for efficient education would drive down the price of higher education.

With pockets full of other people’s money, students select colleges that boast lavish dormitories, state-of-the-art athletic facilities, extravagant recreational amenities, and a slew of counselors at their beck and call. Indeed, colleges are wise to cater to these demands; those who do not often lose students to their more fashionable competitors.

Yet, more than two-thirds of undergraduates receive some form of financial aid. According to a 2011 American Enterprise Institute study conducted by Mark Schneider and Jorge Klor de Alva, taxpayers spend an average of $60,000 for a bachelor’s degree from a noncompetitive public university and up to $100,000 from the most prestigious public schools.

If students were required to “work off” 20 percent of their tuition bill every year, they would be far more inclined to select institutions that deliver a quality, no-frills education with a reasonable price tag.

Charles L. King
, Professor Emeritus of Spanish, University of Colorado, Boulder; former Editor, The Modern Language Journal
Every American college and university should require all freshmen to complete a semester’s course in American history, an unrevised and unbiased history focusing primarily on the principles advocated by our nation’s Founding Fathers.

The goal of the required course is to provide all students with the objective truth of American history, especially of our Constitution, and the basic principles upon which America was founded and which have enabled it to become a truly great nation of free citizens. No student in an American institution of higher education should be allowed to continue college studies without having received a passing grade in this course in American history.

Adam Kissel
, Higher Education Philanthropy
Each term, each student shall explain why he has chosen the courses selected. The student shall write at least one paragraph about each course, articulating how he thinks the course will meet his academic and other objectives as well as the university’s goals for his education. After protected information is redacted, the justifications shall be made available to advisors, deans, professors, and department chairs. More than from student evaluations of teachers’ performance, these short papers will reveal students’ views about the college’s curriculum and its relevance to students’ academic and other goals.

Malcolm Kline
, Executive Director, Accuracy in Academia
Colleges and universities rarely discuss the employment rates of their graduates, but, conversely, are happy to talk about the number of graduates who pursue advanced degrees. I call for truth in advertising in academia.
Accrediting agencies could simply add an asterisk to their accreditation of a college or university if a prescribed number of students and parents complain that the institution is not living up to its advertising. One thousand seems a good ballpark number.

Doing this would merely require credentialing agencies to record student/parent complaints and when they hit four digits add a typographical symbol and footnote to their reports.

Please note that the proposal does not come with an enforcement mechanism. Nor am I calling for any action by any level of government—federal, state, or local. And we certainly do not want to get the U.S. Department of Education involved. Look at what a great job they did with No Child Left Behind.

The point of the asterisk is to let the consumers—students and their parents—know that a particular institution isn’t living up to its own press, so caveat emptor.

Peter Augustine Lawler,
Dana Professor of Government, Berry College
There are surprisingly few American four-year colleges where genuine debate over such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage can occur in the classroom. Pervasive political correctness makes this impossible. It’s okay, the line is, to have your private religious view, but you can’t impose it on others; arguments against abortion or same-sex marriage are nothing but unscientific dogmas and religiously-inspired arbitrary animosity.

Believing students often end up having to remain “in the closet.”

On the other hand, at confessional or denominational schools the education will be apologetics in the service of defending what one knows through faith, with no time wasted admiring the power of counterarguments. Dissenting students tend to keep their reasons to themselves. Or such schools are in angry rebellion against the institutional church’s authority, and the student with orthodox beliefs is marginalized.

So where can a student’s cherished beliefs—whatever they may be—be challenged but not dismissed?

Here’s my recipe for such a privileged place: The school is located in the small-town South, where the comparatively conservative and religious character of the students balances the liberal biases of the faculty. The school has a religious background but is nondenominational— in fact, it doesn’t teach much religion at all.

The faculty is hired according to the standards of the various disciplines, but will—via the self-selection that comes by choosing the southern sticks—be slightly more conservative and religious than American professors generally. The faculty, however, will generally see themselves as more enlightened than their believing students.

This balance circumvents denominational enthusiasm and edginess, and keeps the content of religion from being an endless source of curricular dispute. Truth of religion is considered in the classroom—no law prohibits it—but professors approach discussion in a variety of contradictory ways without fear of dismissal.

Our model school, nonetheless, considers the religious lives of students a positive good and encourages diverse forms of religious expression through student-run organizations. Student religious life is vibrant and seriously observant, amidst plenty of open doubt and dissent.

George Leef,
Director of Research, John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
Read over the promotional materials from almost any American college or university these days and you’ll find an assurance that students who go there will learn “critical thinking skills.” Rarely is that elaborated upon. Students and parents are supposed to believe that simply because the school offers lots of courses where the professors are critical of Western civilization and capitalism “critical thinking” is being taught. This is rarely the case. If colleges were serious about critical thinking—and they ought to be—they would require students to take a course in logic. A logic course teaches students to distinguish between valid arguments and invalid arguments, a capability that will serve them well throughout their lives, as citizens, as consumers, as parents. Other people are constantly trying to persuade you to accept their beliefs, buy their products or services, vote for their candidates, and so on. Students who have learned logic are able to distinguish flawed arguments. Teaching students logic should be at the top of every school’s academic priorities.

Thomas Lindsay
, Director, Center for Higher Education, Texas Public Policy Foundation
To date, roughly five hundred universities have administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to their students. The CLA is a standardized test that measures how much students increase in general collegiate skills during their time in college. The growth in its use is a welcome development in light of the depressing results reported in the landmark national study, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Using the CLA, Adrift surveyed students across the country. It found that 45 percent failed to show “any significant improvement” in “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills” after two years in college. After four years, 36 percent of students continued to show small or empirically nonexistent gains in learning.

Herbert London
, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute; Founder, Gallatin School, New York University
I recommend the creation of an interdisciplinary study program for the first two years of the college curriculum that starts with the epics in Jerusalem and Athens and ends with the contributions of the West. This might be described as the Western civilization program in which students are obliged to read such diverse books as the Bible, The Iliad, Shakespeare’s plays, Newton’s view of physics, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Federalist Papers, Aristotle’s Politics, Plato’s Republic, etc.

Instruction would be based on finding thematic linkages, i.e., the expression of passion, the government and the individual, explaining human behavior, the pros and cons of democracy. Rather than narrow disciplinary pursuits, such a program would give genuine texture to a curriculum most students observe as a hodgepodge of faculty preferences dereliction.

Christopher Long
, President, Intercollegiate Studies Institute
Too many undergraduates today miss out on the serendipity that comes from pulling an unsought book from the library shelf. In an age of Google, JSTOR, and Wikipedia students quickly cut-and-paste their way to the finish line of an assignment without experiencing the joy and wonder of the intellectual journey—and they learn little along the way to boot! As Mark Bauerlein points out in The Dumbest Generation, there is a big difference between quickly pulling up Google’s digitally scanned Mark Twain obituary from the New York Times as opposed to going to the library and perusing the several pages of accompanying testimonies and related articles on microfiche.

The problem today is that students often lack context, self-discipline, and a guiding principle to help them navigate the vast sea of information into which they have been dropped. Thanks to the Internet, they have easy access to almost everything ever written. Their time is more often than not consumed not by great books but by mundane tweets. Professors should demand that students leave their smart phones in their dorm rooms and spend time wandering unplugged through the library’s stacks, open to the books’ sirenic call. Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book and James V. Schall’s A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning—available from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute—could be assigned to help rekindle a student’s intellectual curiosity and thirst for truth.

Greg Lukianoff
, President, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
While researching the modern college campus for my book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (Encounter, 2012), even I was surprised by how deeply speech codes and the groupthink they help create—and the administrative bloat that promotes both—run in the modern academy. There is no easy solution to this problem, but teaching students to seek out those with differing views for rational debate on important topics would foster their intellectual development.

This simple practice is essential to overcoming “confirmation bias” and parochialism. The modern academy teaches students through word and, more powerfully, through example, the exact opposite of independent thought. Students and professors report that it is not “safe” to “hold unpopular views on campus,” and research indicates that a strong relationship exists between one’s level of education and the number of dissenting viewpoints encountered: Those with the least education talk to the greatest number of people with whom they disagree, while those with the highest level of education talk to the lowest.

An academy that takes its intellectual obligations seriously would strive to reverse this trend. Educated people should see it as a duty to poke their heads outside their echo chambers and cultivate the habits of a curious, skeptical mind. Instead, our campuses create consequences for having divergent or irreverent opinions, legitimize cheap tactics for getting out of meaningful debates, and create awkward and unproductive energy around issues that should be freely discussed.

If we could succeed in teaching students the value of actively pursuing intelligent debate with thinkers who do not share their current views, we might begin to reverse the calcification of ideas on campus, and even elevate the tedious national discourse to which we have all become accustomed.

John Maguire
, Author, Newsweek College Writing Guide
Colleges need to get real about writing courses and deal with the elephant under the carpet—gross student impoverishment in reading experience. In the state university where I teach, many first-year writing course students admit that they read exactly four books in high school: the one assigned each year. “Was I supposed to read more?” they ask. “They didn’t ask me to.”

How can you teach students to write when they have basically never read? They have terrible ears for good prose and that’s the source of the terrible writing that is so hard to correct. These students don’t even know what verbs and nouns are. As a friend recently observed: “These kids are being asked to create architecture when they don’t even know how to hold a hammer!”

Colleges must stop pretending that freshmen who cannot hold a hammer—that is, understand verbs and nouns—can design essays. We need to teach them a radical and simple appreciation of the sentence, the active verb, the named object, the capital, and the period. The first half of a freshman composition course can and should concentrate on just one thing: the style of vividness: fairly short sentences with concrete objects and active verbs.
Direct instruction on the necessity of writing short vivid sentences with active verbs will overcome the bad ears these kids have—because they didn’t read.

Robert Maranto
, 21st Century Chair in Leadership, Department of Education Reform, University of Arkansas
Students are never as pliable as in the months before starting college and in their first year, making this a unique time to shape their mindsets. Yet with their usual inattention to undergraduates, faculty leave orientation to student affairs administrators, who emphasize recreation, vocation, and victimization—not learning.

Faculty must take over student orientation, using it to teach students that they are lucky to attend college and that their attendance is being subsidized by others, that integrity matters, that the life of the mind is vital, that with hard work they will grow smarter while with little work they will flunk out or emerge after four years none the better. Use orientation to ground students in their school’s history and traditions and to connect them to something larger than themselves.

Student orientation cannot work without follow-through, so our best rather than our worst faculty must teach first-year courses, which must have high standards and set demanding expectations for the years ahead. Since undergraduates constantly turn over, it would take only four years of this regimen to re-instill the culture of learning in our colleges and universities.

Wight Martindale
, Jr., Retired Visiting Professor, Lehigh University; Senior Vice President, Corporate Bonds, Lehman Brothers; Journalist, Business Week
Very good books have been written about the overstaffing of administrators by college presidents who want greater control over the faculty and the university at large. That’s why these overpriced administrators are there: to support the career and political agendas of the person who hired them.

  To get at least some useful mileage out of this often well-meaning but clearly superfluous group: send the administration to student sporting and cultural events. I’m including departmental secretaries, media executives, librarians, everyone on staff.

At the college where I taught perhaps five or ten girls would watch a women’s track or dual tennis meet. About the same applied to less glamorous sports like softball or rowing. Golf, who knows? So let’s get the administrators and staff who are supposed to be supporting students anyway to show up at games and concerts.

I suggest requiring a weekly minimum of three to four hours attendance at sports and cultural events throughout the academic year. Cheer. Applaud. Show students you really do recognize their efforts. Who knows, it might set a good example for the teaching faculty—they should start showing up, too.

Wilfred McClay
, SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
My idea is so retrograde that it is downright visionary. Require all undergraduates in American colleges and universities—irrespective of major—to memorize and publicly recite from memory certain classic American texts, in full or excerpted form, as a partial fulfillment of their general education requirement. Texts could be, for example, the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s “Farewell Address,” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” etc.

Why memorization? No activity has been more consistently and universally disparaged in educational circles for more than a century. Every account of American education’s development predictably praises the Progressive revolution of dynamic, child-centered, skill-oriented education as an advance over the cloddish and anti-intellectual formalism of “rote memorization.” But something important was lost in the process. True, memorization can be boring. But it also can powerfully sharpen the mind and improve retention and attentiveness. More than ever, memorization can serve as a counter to the increasingly short, distractible attention spans of today’s media-smothered youth and the institutionalized forgetfulness of a culture increasingly dominated by pixels and screens.

When students “commit to memory” a great text—and that figure of speech speaks volumes about what occurs—those students really have something. They have made the words and ideas their own. A memorized text becomes a permanent resource, a standard of reckoning, a rich fund of metaphor and allusion, and a pattern of eloquence, in the same way that Shakespeare and the King James Bible provided an intellectual and verbal treasury for the thought and diction of Lincoln.

Lawrence Mead
, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, New York University
The great scandal of American education is that students can complete their schooling without learning to write correct prose. Even at the college level, and at good schools, most students cannot write even a page of text without committing some error of grammar, usage, or spelling. This is apart from content. The reason is that their teachers—from kindergarten all the way through—have little interest in correcting these errors. Either they themselves don’t know how to write, or it’s too much work.

Professors have no personal or professional interest in whether their students write well, so they ignore the problems and pass students along. College writing programs have little impact on the problem. But once on the job students quickly discover that the boss is their coauthor as their teacher was not, demanding that they be able to write letters or reports that he can sign without embarrassment—or be fired.

I recommend instituting a writing exam that undergraduates must pass to graduate from college, with rules for grammar and usage defined in advance. Ask students to respond to some essay question in, say, five pages, without outside help. Allow students some very small number of errors, or fail them. Have a nonprofit body—funded by all colleges and universities—that would operate separately from coursework correct and return the papers to students with errors indicated.

Allows students to take the test any number of times, but make the number of attempts to pass part of their academic record. Publicize these results by school, with the goal that they will eventually be factored into U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Charles Mitchell,
Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Commonwealth Foundation
Five words: mandatory physical labor, every student.

Two more: not joking.

Charles Murray
, W.H. Brady Scholar, American Enterprise Institute
Pass a federal law that no teacher in a college or university that receives federal funds shall be allowed to award an A to more than 7 percent of the students in any course, and a B to more than an additional 18 percent.

Alex Myrick
, President, Washington Association of Scholars; Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
College students have been complaining for years about ideologically biased professors. Frequently, examples of bias are so blatant that they make the news. Students wanting to make informed choices should not have to rely on word-of-mouth, and faculty accountability should not have to wait for egregious offenses.

The infrastructure for addressing this chronic and serious problem already exists in the form of student evaluations submitted for each course at the end of the quarter or semester. These evaluations typically contain a score or more of specific items and are completed anonymously and sent to an academic dean or department head through a student volunteer.

To student evaluations, I suggest including two questions that could easily be adapted to the Likert scale for frequency, likelihood, or agreement, e.g., very frequently to never, almost always true to almost never true, or strongly agree to strongly disagree:

1. The instructor assigned balanced reading and presented unbiased instruction.
2. The instructor provided authoritative sources/references for course content.

Classes taught by tenured professors would not be exempted. The results could be compiled and forwarded, not just to department heads, but to the trustees as well. NAS or another respected organization could publish the results by college and department for use by prospective students and parents in choosing a college.

Percentage of applicants accepted, SAT midrange scores, freshman retention rates, graduation rates, enrollment numbers, average class sizes, and student-faculty ratios for most colleges are widely available from a number of sources. Isn’t freedom from ideological bias at least as important?

Cary Nelson
, Jubilee Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; President, AAUP, 2006–2012
Learn to be obsessed. That, in a phrase, is my advice to students at all levels. It is how you learn to learn. It is how you learn. It is how you become driven to absorb vast amounts of information on a topic that fascinates you, including all relevant facts, and how you will be led, eventually, to say something of your own—perhaps something dramatically original—on the topic.

My whole career—beginning with high school—was about being obsessed. I wrote thirty-five- to fifty-page typed papers on William Faulkner and Franz Kaka in high school. Back then we were allowed three spelling errors. If we had a fourth, we flunked. That added a dash (at least) of discipline to the paper writing exercise.

During four undergraduate and three graduate years I took a total of two final exams. That’s all. I wrote papers. I became obsessed with topics fundamental and arcane. As an undergraduate at Antioch College they let me get a whole semester’s credit for studying one poet—Rainer Maria Rilke. Not exactly bad preparation for being a poetry specialist for the next fifty years. Another semester I followed an intense curiosity about Medieval and Renaissance alchemy. I read about nothing else for twelve weeks.

As a teacher, my job is to attend to my students’ interests and obsessions and help them to gain focus and practical form. If they follow their hearts—with some careful advice—they will become voracious readers, learners, and producers. Discipline and dedication will come from within. They will love what they do. They will become lifelong self-educators. Anything less leads to a curtailed education and diminished humanity. I haven’t given a final exam in decades, but many of my former students are now distinguished scholars with international reputations.

Of course I do not always succeed. Tragedy strikes some. Some are determined to settle for lesser ambitions. But I know what focused research can do for those minds willing to undertake it. That, for me, is what education is all about.

Marty Nemko
, Member, Western Association of Schools and Colleges Commission to Improve Higher Education’s Transparency and Accountability,
No purchase is made with less informed consent than a college education.

If I were Education Potentate, I’d tell schools, We require every home, drug, packaged food, etc., to provide disclosures. If you want federal financial aid, your homepage must include a College Report Card listing the following information, for your institution and your three top overlap institutions:

• your true four-year graduation rate (no exclusion of athletes, legacies, minorities, etc.)
• the average freshman-to-senior growth on a specified standardized test of writing, critical thinking, oral communication, quantitative skills, and information literacy
• the full projected four-, five-, and six-year cost of attendance, subtracting cash financial aid
• the percentage of graduates who, twelve months after graduation, are in graduate school or employed in a job requiring a college degree, with results broken down by major
• the results of the most recent student or alumni satisfaction survey rating academic, nonacademic, and overall experience on a four-point scale from “poor” to “excellent”
• the most recent accreditation visiting team report and association action

Mandating a college report card would empower prospective students to choose a college more wisely, and even more important, reveal what’s behind the ivy. Deficient colleges might finally be embarrassed into reallocating resources from shrubs, sports, showcase buildings, sterile research, and porcine administrations to investments more likely to transform students into excellent thinkers, professionals, and citizens.

Kevin Nestor,
Trustee, The Ohio State University at Mansfield, 2001–2010
The single most important thing—and the single most difficult—that university trustees, administrators, and faculty members must do to reform higher education is to create a university culture that values and protects the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge in search of truth above all else. The principles and practices that create such a culture must be given priority over all others in all aspects of the operations of our public campuses. No ideology, no concern for personal or political sensitivity, and no political perspective should ever be allowed to trump them. It is this approach alone that fully accords with the animating principles behind our First Amendment, articulated so well by Thomas Jefferson when he said, “Error of opinion may be tolerated when reason is left free to combat it,” and “It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”

Russell Nieli
, Lecturer, Princeton University
Having attended four high-end universities (Duke, Columbia, Princeton, Yale), and served on the part-time faculty at Princeton for over twenty years, I feel best qualified to comment on America’s elite educational institutions. In my judgment, the greatest scandal of these institutions lies in their eagerness to compromise academic standards for two large groups of yearly admits: recruited athletes and “underrepresented minority students” (mainly blacks and Latinos). One’s ability to slap around a hockey puck or contribute to racial “diversity” on campus are hardly valid reasons for severely compromising academic standards. (Legacy admits are a third problem, but in my experience administrators are usually unwilling to reach down nearly as far to accommodate the typical alumni child.) The only solution I can see, making no claim for its political feasibility, is to have at least half of those on the admissions committee consist of tenured faculty members, preferably those drawn from the hard sciences (the most meritocratic contingent of most university faculties). Neither athletes nor “underrepresented minorities” —nor the children of alumni, faculty members, politicians, famous people, or wealthy donors—should enjoy any substantial preferences over better qualified applicants.

Utopian? Yes. But we do have one working model. It’s called the California Institute of Technology, and, despite its diminutive size, in one respected international comparison it was rated number two among world-class universities (behind only Harvard). It must be doing something right. Caltech’s secret? Extensive faculty input in the admissions process and an admissions philosophy that implements a simple rule: ignore entirely athletic recruitment, racial balancing, legacy preferences, and the like and focus exclusively on opening your institution’s facilities only to the best, the brightest, and the most eager to learn.

B. Nelson Ong
, Associate Professor of Political Science, College of New Rochelle; Secretary, National Association of Scholars
Trustees should examine whether a liberal arts education is being provided in such a way that students can learn what is best in our Western cultural heritage as well as the tensions and competing values in that tradition.
They should not rely on administration reports but interview faculty and do due diligence by reading the reports from NAS and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni to see what the issues are regarding core curriculum and intellectual diversity in higher education so that they will know what to look for in their particular universities and colleges.

Robert Paquette
, Professor of History, Hamilton College
In fall 2011, the Alexander Hamilton Institute kicked-off an entrepreneurship initiative aimed at undergraduates by inviting the CEO of a major family-owned business to speak on the meaning of entrepreneurship. During the question-and-answer period, a young man asked the CEO—Hamilton College, class of 1954—what courses he thought proved most important in making him a successful entrepreneur. Without hesitation he responded: “Composition and accounting.” A trenchant silence greeted the answer.

The CEO turned to me and asked, “They still teach composition, don’t they?”

“Well, no.”

“But doesn’t the home page of the Hamilton College website proclaim the college “A national leader in teaching students to write effectively, learn from each other and think for themselves”?

“Well, yes, but no quantitative data exists to support that pronouncement, which comes from the college’s public relations arm, not its writing center.”

“Doesn’t Hamilton’s English department require entry-level courses in composition?”

“Well no. It doesn’t even require a course in Shakespeare for English majors.”

“Well, doesn’t the college require writing-intensive courses?”

“Yes, but the existence of a writing-intensive course does not necessarily mean a course in which the student’s writing is graded intensively. Many if not most faculty regard grading papers as an obligation perhaps only preferable to having a colonoscopy. English departments especially at allegedly elite colleges and universities have punted composition courses to lowly adjuncts and graduate students, or something called ‘writing across the curriculum.’ Many of those who teach such courses, however, can hardly be called polished stylists.”

Here are my suggestions for improving our student’s writing skills: Reinstitute composition courses in elite colleges where necessary. Read an undergraduate’s graded paper in English 101 to see how thoroughly it has been evaluated. Research whether the writing instructors are English professors who hold intensive conferences, one-on-one with students.

Mitch Pearlstein
, Founder and President, Center of the American Experiment
Here’s a sampling of very good books that have shaped some of my own writing over the years. Other than broad themes of poverty and education, what might their common denominator be?

• Losing Ground, by Charles Murray
• The Tragedy of American Compassion, by Marvin Olasky
• Work over Welfare, by Ron Haskins
• The War Against Boys, by Christina Hoff Sommers
• Troublemaker, by Chester E. Finn, Jr.

The answer is that all five were written by first-rate scholars toiling not under the auspices of an exceptional university or college, but rather under the auspices of an exceptional think tank. 

So a recommendation: Faculty with talent and inclination for the kind of inquiry described here—complex but accessible analyses, offered perhaps with a bit of bite—ought to be encouraged to spend a year or two at points in their careers at think tanks, even those with clear-cut ideological viewpoints. By “encouraged,” I mean financially supported if possible. In such settings professors could break at least partially free from writing for too small slices of the world, meaning (at the risk of cliché) mostly their peers. Needless to say, faculty daredevils taking such plunges should not later be made to suffer in terms of promotion and compensation.

Michael Poliakoff
, Vice President of Policy, American Council of Trustees and Alumni
There’s nothing quite like the swagger of a university chancellor or college president who has just gotten money and bragging rights for a new campus building.

Before approving a new building, however, even if it comes with a lot of donor funding, the savvy trustee will ask two crucial questions: What will it cost to maintain this building and how fully are existing buildings being used?
A new building is a gift that keeps on taking: 70 percent of the cost to build it will go into maintenance. So, the next question: Do we really need it?

ACTA’s analysis of public higher education in Virginia showed twelve of Virginia’s public colleges and universities failed to meet state guidelines for weekly hours of classroom use. Nine failed to meet the guidelines for use of the most expensive of all space—laboratories. Moving to the cash-strapped West Coast, we found that out of the thirty-four public universities in the California State and University of California systems, only one met the state’s minimum standards for average weekly contact hours. Penn State has had a lot to confess lately, but its strategic plan deserves special mention:

Too often, [classroom and laboratory] facilities are not fully utilized—and the University constructs additional facilities—because of lack of use outside of certain “prime time” class periods or times of the day. Classroom space at University Park, for example, is near fully utilized between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on a typical day….[A] notable reduction in classroom utilization has occurred at 8:00 a.m., in response to student (and some faculty) preferences.

ACTA’s research found that at UCLA, large lecture halls are especially underutilized on Friday afternoons. This raises an issue that is even more serious than squandered money. With virtually no classes on Friday afternoon, and an 8:00 a.m. class deemed cruel and unusual, what has the institution done to prepare the future leaders of America for the day of reckoning when the extended party ends and the reality of global competition begins?

Larry Purdy
, Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Delete the boxes on the college application form that seek information on an applicant’s race or ethnicity. Eliminating these pernicious boxes (that fail to take into account our increasingly multiracial demography) will

• reduce the “bean-counting” admissions officers must do in their efforts to enroll a racially “diverse” class
• deter colleges from the inevitable need to establish different admissions standards based on the race of the applicant
• require an applicant to seriously consider whether his race should matter when it comes to his admission (and, if so, explain why)
• demonstrate that writing an essay that focuses on matters such as overcoming socioeconomic or educational disadvantage is, as often as not, race-neutral

Here’s another benefit: The applicant who conceivably, in that rare case, demonstrates a disadvantage due to race may justifiably warrant extra consideration in the college admissions process. In the end, any applicant who effectively demonstrates overcoming such a disadvantage, and receives extra consideration because of it, becomes the beneficiary of “affirmative action” in a purer sense, i.e., as a truly remedial measure.
This cure is not perfect. Nothing is. Such a system can be gamed by those who choose to write a deceptive essay (aided by a cottage industry of consultants who spend their days concocting tales of “disadvantage” allegedly based on race). But it improves upon the current system that simply pigeon-holes applicants based on their racial or ethnic group membership, both of which are entirely irrelevant to their merits; and, worse, may be inaccurate in the extreme. (Just ask Elizabeth Warren.)

Don Racheter
, President, Iowa Association of Scholars
I would recommend that every college require students to complete a course titled “The American Founding” in order to graduate. This course would be a survey of the history, religion, culture, economy, diplomacy, and other aspects of how America came to be a separate nation and what the Founding Fathers believed our unique place in the world to be. No left-wing psychobabble allowed! Tell the story straight up—using the words of the Founders themselves as much as possible.

Sam Ratcliffe
, Bywaters Special Collections, Southern Methodist University
This is a congeries of ideas. A college student lives within a social environment as well as an academic environment. While these may be distinct in some ways, a close study of a school’s curriculum by student and parents can yield insights into both (along with, of course, refining the student’s ideas about a possible major, course selection, etc.). If a curriculum purports to educate students in such fields as mathematics, the sciences, English, history, languages, and other traditional disciplines it should include a list of well-defined core courses covering a broad base of knowledge. And these courses should be taught primarily by full-time faculty rather than by an amalgamation of teaching assistants, adjuncts, and temporary appointments.

Parents and prospective students should never be afraid to ask questions regarding these matters, financial aid, or any other aspect of college life. Ideally, a prospective student would be able to spend the night in a dorm, visit a class, and have at least one in-depth conversation with a full-time faculty member. I heartily agree with Thomas Sowell, who has urged students and parents to abandon the notion of gaining entrance into one of the so-called “best” colleges and concentrate on attending the college best suited for the individual student.

Glenn Ricketts
, Public Affairs Director, National Association of Scholars
We faculty can make a difference in our own classrooms. We can decide what texts to use, what requirements to specify, and what themes to emphasize. And we can discuss matters other than race, gender, class, ethnicity, and sexuality.

Thus, I require my introductory political science students to read an eight hundred-page abridgment of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in the belief that a college education should expose them to such lapidary prose. To ensure that they actually do the reading, I divide the assignment into segments, for which they prepare written summaries. And it helps to remind them that Abraham Lincoln on his own initiative read the entire multivolume history by candlelight—this is a handy way to deflect the whining about how ha-a-a-r-rd it is to read Gibbon.

The Gibbon assignment leads to other angles: What kind of reading did people do in his day? We find out by turning to Pope’s 1711 masterpiece, An Essay on Criticism. I enjoy telling students that Pope was just about their age when he composed the work, suffered severe physical disabilities, and, due to his Catholicism, was barred from a university education—none of which stopped him from mastering Greek, Latin, and the English literary canon or becoming the most celebrated writer of his time. How’s that for a role model?

I also take the opportunity to introduce some classical music, usually one movement from George Frideric Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 11 (1739), no doubt heard by Gibbon himself. I provide a list for further listening that includes The Water Music, The Royal Fireworks Music, and Israel in Egypt.

And this is in a course that also covers Aristotle, Rousseau, Burke, Marx, executives, political parties, revolution, and bureaucracy. Call it “Political Science 101, enhanced edition.”

Naomi Schaefer Riley
, Author, The Faculty Lounges and God on the Quad
A few years ago, ABC ran six episodes of a reality show called The Scholar in which ten high school seniors competed for a full scholarship of up to $240,000 to the college of their choice. The level of narcissism that is involved in applying to college these days (well-documented in Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U) is demonstrated best by Melissa, the contestant who eventually won the show. When asked what famous person, dead or alive, she’d like to have dinner with, Melissa answers, “Plato”—noting that she has read his story about the cave and wants to discuss her own “process of self-discovery” with him.

Everything about college and the process leading to it makes students believe that their innermost feelings are of the utmost importance. Professors (the good ones, anyway) complain that students begin every answer with “I feel.” This is emblematic of a certain self-absorption combined with postmodern fuzzy thinking.

It will be a long, perhaps impossible, project to get college freshmen out of these bad habits. But the first step is asking them to take themselves out of the equation. Every paper turned in during the first year of college should depend entirely for its argument on the writings and thoughts of others without any reference to the student’s personal experience. The writing should include a general thesis backed up by specific quotations or examples from third parties. The only way to make eighteen-year-olds into intelligible writers and speakers is to force them to look beyond themselves.

Bill Roden
, Education Consultant
Faculty should receive orientation pertaining to the institution’s grading protocols. At some schools standards exist that identify what constitutes an A, B, or C, but rarely do institutions enforce them. Perhaps they fear treading on the professor’s “academic freedom,” but there is the institutional academic freedom that also means that the institution can mandate grading standards and what is taught.

Without clear grading criteria, grade inflation becomes rampant (it’s one way to obtain favorable student evaluations and avoid confrontation with vocal parents). Blinders are oftentimes in place to ignore evidence of plagiarism. One instructor may award an A for completing all course units, while another sees the same work and assigns a C for just meeting the objectives.

Software programs do exist that allow faculty to monitor their own and their colleagues’ grading assessments from semester to semester. If one instructor teaching, say, Introduction to Accounting, consistently awards higher grades than his colleagues teaching the same course, this discrepancy can be explored.,, and other electronic tools can help faculty check for plagiarism, pointing out what is and is not properly appropriated.

Designated faculty can be assigned to review peers’ graded assignments prior to their being returned to students. Care should be taken to ensure that content, structure, style, and mechanics are addressed. While too many comments can discourage students, sufficient commentary is required to uphold academic integrity.

John Rosenberg
, Publisher, Editor, Writer,
Our daughter, Jessie Rosenberg, skipped high school, entered a special program at Mary Baldwin College as a thirteen-year-old freshman, transferred to Bryn Mawr College at fourteen, graduated at seventeen, and received her Ph.D. in applied physics from Caltech just after turning twenty-three. Now a research physicist at IBM, she was recently featured by Forbes magazine as one of thirty outstanding scientists under thirty. Jessie was obviously an unusual child, but not as unusual as you might think. There are many young students bright and mature enough to enter college early, and the SAT provides an ideal screening device to find those who are academically ready. Young students scoring very high on the SAT should be seriously considered for early entrance, especially when interviews and essays reveal them to be eager to move on and learn. There is no good reason to set arbitrary age and credential requirements (such as a high school diploma) on college entrance.

David J. Rothman
, Poetry Concentration Director, MFA in Creative Writing, Western State Colorado University
Literary prosody—the study of meter, rhyme, stanza forms, lyrical forms, and all other aspects of what is sometimes called the music of poetry—used to be standard fare in all serious poetry curricula, both critical and creative. This attention to versecraft began with Plato and Aristotle and continues up to the present, in which poets and serious critics still wrestle with and over it. Among academics and in English and language departments, however, literary prosody has virtually disappeared. It is never mentioned in job listings (I check regularly) and there are no dedicated lines, let alone chairs in the field—and it is a field, not merely a subject. Books and scholarly articles are difficult to publish, and extended discussions, let alone full courses, on prosody hardly exist in English department curricula, even at the graduate level.

Much of this can be ascribed to the displacement of literary thinking by broad social and political approaches that flatten all forms of writing into “texts,” an approach that explicitly deemphasizes aesthetic concerns. Despite this decline, poets (with the more discerning critics and a small but dedicated band of scholars) continue to study and practice verse as verse, investigating prosody in practical, historical, and theoretical terms.

Giving prosody its due in literary study would be a boon to all involved. We should:

• institute and require rigorous course-units, even full courses in literary prosody, reaching out to classics, linguistics, and creative writing programs to create jointly taught courses;
• fight for “prosody” as an area of expertise for hiring;
• encourage publication in prosody in a wide range of journals;
• most importantly, include literary prosody as a field (not just a subject) in any rigorous language and literature curriculum.

James Roumasset
, Professor of Economics, University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa
We have met the enemy and he is us. When interviewed on the PBS Newshour about his new book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco singled out one thing he would do to improve the college experience: Students should learn to engage in civil disagreement, listen with respect, and be able to walk into the classroom with one opinion and walk out with another. As a first step, we might practice that during faculty meetings. If we learn the art of truly listening to (and even enjoying) opinions different than our own, we will be more likely to pass on that skill to our students. And diversity of thought is the best antidote to the diversity of identity movement that tends to dehumanize minorities by expecting them to think according to their stereotypes.

Jay Schalin
, Director of State Policy Analysis, John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
Require universities to post online documents such as course syllabi and professor’s CVs, making them available to the public. This is one way to confront classroom bias and to ensure quality teaching without overstepping the boundaries of a legitimate definition of academic freedom. It’s kind of a “truth-in-advertising” rule to let the marketplace sort things out rather than conducting misguided and heavy-handed attempts to mandate objectivity and ideological diversity legislatively.

Such a rule would enable prospective students and their parents to pick more suitable schools and majors and give students more guidance about registering for courses. It would make the transfer process easier. It would potentially give employers more insight into prospective employees: whether, for instance, their courses were likely to have taught them to reason effectively, or whether they were instead fed a steady diet of anti-capitalism, pseudo-science, and postmodern dreck. And it would make the act of investigation so much easier for reform-minded educational researchers, who are often stymied in their attempts to see what is really going on inside college and university classrooms.

Some universities have already taken this step, and the state of Texas even passed a law in 2011 that requires its universities to post syllabi and CVs online for public viewing.

Howard S. Schwartz
, Professor of Organizational Behavior, Oakland University; Author, Society Against Itself: Political Correctness and Organizational Self-Destruction
It grieves me to say that the best way to reform American higher education is to reform American lower education. The modal student comes to us already formed, having absorbed the politically correct ideology in which he has been marinated. He bring us his views, fully believing that he has created them on his own, and never reflecting on the fact that these beliefs are exactly the same as those of everyone else.

But the problem is not only the ideology, it’s what this “education” does to students’ souls. Passive, dependent, shallow, and increasingly stupid, they do not feel that reason and evidence are rocks on which they can ground their assertions. Rather, they look to see what they can say on the basis of what will not get them into trouble.

The political sea change that I like to believe we are going through will create a large number of parents who will lose their tolerance for this kind of educational commandeering. They will know that children educated in this way will be helpless in the world they are likely to face. Hence, they will choose otherwise if they have an alternative.

One thing that could be done to reform higher education? Give them that option.

Gilbert Sewall
, Director, American Textbook Council
Art history on campus—especially Western art history—today often starts in 1865 or 1900. Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, and Nam June Paik are cast as “prototypes” or “classics.” Mandarins in museums and universities patrol this contemporary canon as firmly as the art guilds or salons of the past. In an ideal humanities curriculum I’d re-center the classical revival in Europe starting around 1400, using the Quattrocento and Old Masters as documentary material. To anyone trying to imagine the pre-industrial world, figurative works before photography provide a rich encyclopedia of the modern world’s antecedents. For students raised in a secular age, devotional art provides an opening into metaphysics. Fifteenth-century Italian and Flemish portraiture defines contemporary conceptions of human glory: the expansive, earthly, and individual pursuit of power, wealth, and fame. The Old Masters restate archetypal stories from the Bible and antiquity with innumerable interpretations of mood and design. This extraordinary corpus speaks to students with a force and clarity that postmodernism fails to negate. First, however, students need to learn that it exists and is much more than a relic of a discredited canon.

Thomas A. Shakely
, Board of Directors, The Nittany Valley Society
As you alight the steps from your last class of the day you instinctively attend to your iPhone. A few missed calls. Two voicemails. A few e-mails. A text message. Assorted notifications. Nothing pressing, though. There’s still time to enjoy the fading day as afternoon turns to evening, so you sit to recline on a grassy spot beneath some graceful willow, pulling your iPad out to read a bit. You get a few hundred words in before the iPhone is ringing, nagging again. Ignore. Then your iPad reminders kick in, finally and irrevocably pulling you from your reading, and from the evening.

This is our life now, for many professors as well as for students. There is so little room for quiet or leisure or silence. In The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton reminds us that “our word for school comes from the Greek word for leisure. Of course, reasoned the Greek, given leisure a man will employ it in thinking and finding out about things. Leisure and the pursuit of knowledge, the connection was inevitable...”

What a still radical and revolutionary insight—leisure, rather than programming or activities, as the context for discovery and learning! Even in Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional world, The Diogenes Club was a necessary refuge from loudness and distraction.

Can we build physical, explicit spaces for leisure on our campuses? Where no devices are allowed? Where questing is the goal? Where eternal rather than ephemeral labors are sought?

Professors should encourage students to make the most of the college experience by intentionally retreating from noise. The gift of a college education is the opportunity to retreat from the world prior to commencing lives within it.

A bit of the wisdom of the Greeks is calling to us, if only we have a moment to think it over.

Jane S. Shaw
, President, John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy
Every elementary education department should require its majors to take a phonics course.

Not just in reading. Not just a course “on the integration of reading and writing processes throughout content areas” or how to “understand and apply theories of literacy learning to teaching literacy in elementary classrooms.” The course should teach undergraduates how to teach children to read by enabling them to understand that letters have specific sounds and together those sounds make up words.

Many education schools produce graduates who have little knowledge of specific techniques for teaching reading. That is one reason why, in spite of vast expenditures on remedial reading and reading specialists in elementary school, many students simply don’t learn to read. Usually, they have been introduced to the “whole language” approach to reading, which emphasizes recognizing the entire word, rather than the sounds of individual letters, and typically involves “shared reading” with the teacher. Research has confirmed that it is not nearly as effective as a phonics-based method.

Malcolm Sherman
, Associate Professor Mathematics and Statistics, University at Albany, State University of New York
Grade inflation is both a cause and a consequence of lower standards. A practical reform would be to reduce the value of inflated grades by having transcripts include not only the letter grade received by an individual student, but also the average of all grades given in that class, and the previous semester’s average GPA for all students in the class (so that an honors class can be recognized as such). There are already a few colleges where transcripts include this kind of information.

Most (but not all) students would oppose such a truth in grading proposal. But university administrators and state legislators, whose prime concern is graduation rates, would not feel especially threatened. Employers and graduate and professional schools would be able to make better hiring and admissions decisions. Business groups and boards of trustees might be convinced to support truth in grading.

Faculty would be divided. Those faculty who now give As to three-quarters of their students would work to defeat the proposal. But they would have a hard time explaining why future employers and graduate schools should not be able to tell whether 20 percent or 80 percent of a class got As. Nor would these faculty be able to claim their right to assign grades is being challenged.
Finally truth in grading is clear enough so that, once adopted, it should work as intended and won’t be thwarted by those charged with implementing it.

Fred Siegel
, Scholar in Residence, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, New York
The great deficiency of contemporary students is their lack of general knowledge. Most rarely read a newspaper let alone a book and fewer still read for pleasure. Unaware of history or geography, even students with high SAT scores have difficulty placing ideas or events in any context.

 I’ve found the best way to remedy this problem is fourfold.

First, I ask students who register for my courses to read an accessible novel on the topic over the summer or during break. For instance, if I’m teaching the history of the twentieth century, I’ll suggest Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers, a sweeping novel set against the conflict between the rival totalitarianisms in the 1930s and 1940s. For a course on American liberalism, I’ll assign Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. For a course on the 1960s, students read Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road or Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet.

Second, I ask students to read a daily newspaper such as the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times and hold them accountable for any major articles appearing in the paper’s first section that touch on class topics. This expands their base knowledge and vocabulary, and introduces them to different viewpoints in the op-ed pages. We discuss the current events that relate to the course content for a few minutes each week.

Third, I require students to purchase a short paperback historical atlas and use it to make sense of reading assignments. I quiz them on the geography of what we’re discussing. In talking about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, for instance, students study the map of Illinois that extends from Lake Michigan to below the Mason-Dixon line.

Fourth, I ask students to talk to their extended family about current events and the events discussed in class. They are sometimes engaged by recognizing that class topics have a connection to their own family histories.

David Solway
, Poet, Essayist, Musician
Hope and Change? What we euphemistically call “education” today is in serious, perhaps terminal disarray. This state of affairs is so obvious it requires little effort to confirm—all we need do is look around. The view is devastating: teacher-training programs that graduate Borg-like creatures without spontaneity or discipline-specific erudition who are taught to practice method without substance; students representing a generation suffering from intellectual narcolepsy, for whom communicating is a matter of insensate texting and psittacine tweeting and who feel entitled to high grades as a function of mere presence; administrators infected by political correctness and suffering vertebral collapse; and postsecondary professors for whom teaching—when they are actually in the classroom and not on sabbatical doing “research”—involves the transformation of the humanities into a species of leftist political indoctrination.

Real change, I suspect, would begin with the individual, not the institution, and with ad hoc groups of like-minded individuals, not formally constituted organizations. Individuals are, at least hypothetically, mobile; institutions tend invariably to self-preservation at best and inertia at worst. Consequently, my sole possible recommendation to redeem an educational disaster is unimpressively modest: write, converse, continue to argue and persuade, in the hope that individual teachers, in thinking and practice, may be influenced for the good and decide to oppose the lethargy, self-aggrandizement, ignorance, rampant politicizing, and entrenched interests that vitiate the contemporary academy.

This will seem distressingly like a presidential bromide. But there is nothing to be said against hope and change if the hope is based on empirical realism and the change is truly beneficial.

Harry Stein
, Contributing Editor, City Journal
The post on the website Gun & Game by an unnamed graduate of “the Academy” minced no words. Where liberal arts students at most conventional institutions are, he wrote, apt to waste their time studying “Organized Grab-Ass, Terminal Clusterf**k, and the Wellness of Being” taught by a pampered elite who went straight from college through tenure, he and his classmates actually learned from those who damn well knew whereof they spoke:

We learned cargo operations from the Chief Mate of the training ship, who had spent years at sea before coming ashore to be a port captain responsible for a company’s cargo operations….Stability and Trim was taught by a licensed Master who had a master’s degree in hydrodynamics who survived the Murmansk run in World War II….Naval Science was taught by Navy line officers fresh from sea duty with the Fleet.

The argument is a familiar one, and this fellow neatly sums it up: most academics “know as little about the real world as a spoon knows about the sugar it dips from the bowl.”

A solution is readily at hand: academics should be obliged—forced—early in their careers to spend several years in the workaday world. They should come face-to-face with balancing books, meeting payroll, and grappling with hiring and firing decisions all while trying to make a business grow. They should learn what it takes to succeed, and how it feels to fail.

To those who point out that the Chinese attempted something along the same lines during the Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals were sent en masse into the countryside to learn from the peasants, I say, absolutely, and so what? We can do it better! Our intention would be not to humiliate and disgrace, but to enlighten! And, hey, if there’s a little humiliation and disgrace along the way—and that humility supplants condescension and the reflexive insufferable smirk is forever wiped away—what’s the harm?

Sandra Stotsky
, Professor Emerita of Education Reform, University of Arkansas
My recommendation would change education schools overnight: Require an MA or MS degree in a subject taught in K–12 for admission to a doctoral program in education. This requirement would upgrade the caliber of doctoral students in one stroke. It would also necessitate the availability of academically relevant summer coursework, tuition for which should be paid in part by the state or local board of education, not only by teachers themselves.

The quality of the bulk of education research in many areas, for example, mathematics and written composition, varies greatly. I therefore add a second recommendation: Require boards of trustees to request a report on the strengths and weaknesses of their doctoral programs in education and on the quality of the dissertations and research done at their universities, using evaluators from universities or research institutes in other states.

Donald Sullivan
, Professor of Pharmacy Practice, Ohio Northern University
The student-loan crisis calls for creative thinking on repayment strategies and incentives. Here are ten ideas from an academician who daily witnesses his students’ financial struggles:

• Create a pretax employee payroll deduction for student-loan repayment. The rate of repayment could be tied to salary.
• Offer tax breaks for companies that pay back employees’ student loans.
• Reduce the interest rate for the loans of students who complete degrees in four years.
• Reduce the interest rate if an actual degree is obtained.
• Seek volume tuition discounts based on the number of loans the government gives to students at each university—after all, the government negotiates special rates on everything else it buys.
• Create a sliding scale that reduces interest rates the more quickly a loan is paid back.
• Offer two different interest rates: one for tuition and a higher rate for loans that pay for living expenses.
• Award incentive bonuses to universities that get students to graduate in four years.
• Lower interest rates for students with majors that are in demand or short supply.
• Base student-loan rates on credit scores.

(Adapted from

Ashley Thorne
, Director, Center for the Study of the Curriculum, National Association of Scholars
One way to build an intellectual community is to assign a book each summer as “common reading,” not just to new students, but to the student body. Many colleges and universities already do this, but often it’s less an assignment than a publicity move to attract popular authors to speak on campus.

Many common reading programs make poor book choices. Committees in charge of common readings should select books that have stood the test of time, reflect human nature accurately and memorably, and correspond with college-level reading standards. Themes of character, redemption, hubris, or the meaning of life usually offer better reads than works focused on grievance, multiculturalism, sexuality, or environmentalism. Assigned readings should also exemplify elegance of language, a degree of complexity, and moral seriousness.

Fiction is a good choice, but other genres can work. For suggestions, see NAS’s recommended college common readings ( and the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read books ( Committees might also ask alumni, “What book that you read in college influenced you the most?” and consider their answers as candidates.

Making common readings mandatory—enforcing this with a campus-wide test—will ensure that all students know the text. Colleges can craft the program to maximize student participation by hosting dramatic readings (think Melville, Shakespeare), expert lectures, and author impersonators (think Twain, Lincoln). Colleges can also pick a yearlong theme inspired by the reading and devote campus-wide events on that theme.

Jackson Toby
, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Rutgers University; Author, The Lowering of Higher Education in America: Why Student Loans Should Be Based on Credit Worthiness
Low-cost student loans—embraced by President Obama, Governor Romney, and Congressional leaders of both parties—is a bad idea whose time has come. Students, prospective students, and their parents love the idea of paying less for attending college. Moreover, some economists say that investing more in educating youngsters from low-income families will increase the ability of American workers to compete in the global marketplace.

Students don’t need cheaper loans. They need loans that give them an incentive to get good enough college educations to qualify for jobs—well-paying jobs that enable them to pay off their loans. The flaw in the federal guaranteed student-loan program from its 1965 inception has been its exclusive concern with whether students come from low-income families.

To reform the federal student-loan program, the Department of Education should start targeting student loans, giving cheaper loans to needy students with good prospects for repaying the loans they take out. Some loans should continue at a 6.8 percent interest rate (as Congress planned in a 2007 law), others should charge 3.4 percent or even less. Differential loan rates would reduce student defaults, thereby reducing the credit problems that defaulting students get into as well as the cost of these defaults to American taxpayers. A side effect of targeted loans would be to improve the educational atmosphere of American colleges.

When students know that the interest rates on their loans are at stake each year, they are more likely to take their classes seriously and less likely to waste time partying and accumulating bad credit ratings by maxing out multiple credit cards on balances they cannot pay. Samuel Johnson said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Losing eligibility for lower-rate student loans is not hanging—or even debtors’ prison—but financial incentives surely will concentrate some student minds.

Stanley W. Trimble
, Professor Emeritus of Geography, University of California at Los Angeles
As an undergraduate and graduate student in 1960s, I became convinced that students should be able to give a confidential evaluation of their classes. A new professor in the early seventies, I was among the “Young Turks” who campaigned for student evaluations. Although scientific evidence already existed suggesting that classes where students learned the least received the highest ratings, we persevered. Student evaluations became almost ubiquitous within a decade.

That students were not the idealistic and objective audience we anticipated soon became apparent. Evaluations largely became popularity contests: easy-grading entertainers were the most popular, followed by ideologues exploiting callow rebellion against the “establishment,” later followed by those teaching bubblegum courses.

The instruments of evaluation were often poorly designed, frequently asking questions students were incapable of judging. Most egregious: the evaluation was statistically biased. At UCLA, for example, the range of “grades” was on a numerical range of 1 to 9, 9 being the best. The university average was something over 7. This meant that satisfied students could assign only a “9” while dissatisfied students could assign a “1.” It doesn’t take a math genius to see that unhappy (or poor) students had more than three times the voting power of satisfied students.

This mean score was really all that interested most administrators; few other than the instructor ever paid much attention to students’ written comments. Administrators were soon using evaluations for such personnel decisions as tenure and promotion. Often it was the only evaluation used.

Self-preservation is a powerful force. When high scores—often from just one question, “overall rating of instructor”—elicited vacuous faculty meeting euphoria, even the most conscientious teacher began to wonder.

This effected a slow erosion in institutional standards.

By the 1980s, I understood that we had created a Frankenstein monster. In a rare period of idealism, I searched the literature on student evaluations and crafted a fifteen-page memo—complete with graphs, figures, and references—describing the problems and suggesting improvements. I sent the memo to several upper-level administrators and did hear back from the dean, who promised to include me in any future reform of the evaluation. After twenty-five years, I’m still waiting.

David L. Tubbs
, Associate Professor of Politics, The King’s College
In any college or university class or discussion section where the instructor can be expected to know every student’s name by semester’s end—say, when enrollment is fifty students or fewer—the instructor should be required to make class attendance and participation a significant part of the student’s final grade. Attendance and participation should count for at least 15 percent in a humanities or social science course and at least 10 percent in any natural science course. Furthermore, students should be expected to attend every class, unless there is a compelling reason for an absence.

Why such a policy? Above all, a cavalier attitude towards attendance and participation reflects institutional indifference to the enterprise of teaching. It also betrays indifference toward parents, who typically pay most of a student’s tuition and fees. Regular attendance and participation must be considered integral parts of the learning associated with “higher education.”

Many schools promote their low faculty-student ratios to prospective students. But from a parent’s perspective, this is meaningless if a child regularly misses class and is not held accountable. Parents ought to have tangible evidence that American colleges and universities aspire to more than being vast playgrounds for young adults.

Trustees and administrators should have an active role in overseeing a student attendance and participation policy, which, unfortunately, could be undermined by instructors who are highly permissive in giving “excused absences.”

If schools cannot cogently explain the importance of attendance and class participation for undergraduates, they should not be surprised if more students end up embracing online education.

Richard Vedder,
Director, Center for College Affordability and Productivity; Distinguished Professor of Economics, Ohio University
University governing boards should do more than raise funds and attend ceremonial events. Aside from picking the president and perhaps other key officials and approving budgets and contracts, a good board exercises important oversight responsibilities, safeguarding the interests of key concerned outside constituencies (taxpayers, alumni, major benefactors). While some boards are excessively activist and interfere in routine decision-making, more commonly they are expensive rubber stamps for administrations, failing to curb abuses and monumental errors of judgment.

One reason for this is that trustees typically receive campus information mainly from the president, who seldom presents all sides of brewing campus issues and sometimes even keeps trustees in the dark about scandal. Trustees often do not have full information on the quality of applications, the university’s external reputation relative to other schools, the success of research activities, and almost always what the students are learning in the classroom and beyond.

One low-cost way to alleviate this problem is to give trustees their own employee, arguably the secretary to the board, whose major job is to funnel information to the trustees independent of what the administration provides. This employee—whose salary and benefits would be determined by the board—would serve some of the same functions as an inspector general in government agencies and work from a space located outside the president’s office.

To be sure, trustees often lack the sophistication or competence to evaluate academic issues, so the proposal is not without risks, but—on balance—is worth a try.

Howard Wainer
, Distinguished Research Scientist, National Board of Medical Examiners
I would require that all students (and all university administrators) have to take at least one good course in the science of uncertainty: statistics. The modern world is filled with situations in which we must be able to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty and our intuitions are poorly developed to do this wisely.

To accomplish this, colleges would need to find enough competent instructors to do this—no small task.

Ibn Warraq
, Founder, Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society; Senior Research Fellow, Center for Inquiry; Author, most recently of Why the West Is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy
Nullius in Verba

If we are to develop free individuals capable of autonomous reflection and sustained critical thought, and who are critical of dogmatic authority—a moral virtue essential in a democracy, and necessary for self-development—we could not do better than emulate the course in logic and critical thinking offered by the newly-created New College for the Humanities at the University of London, a brain-child of the philosopher Anthony Grayling. All disciplines should teach students to ask the question, “What is the evidence?” And the course at New College provides the essential tools to ask such a question for any intellectual discipline:

Logic and Critical Thinking
The aim of this course is to introduce you to the methods and principles of good reasoning. It will develop your ability to identify truth-preserving patterns of argument, evaluate evidence, and effectively communicate your ideas. The course covers:

• the basic concepts and techniques of formal logic: validity, soundness, traditional syllogistic logic, set theory, first order propositional and predicate calculus, the logic of relations, identity.
• the tropes of informal logic: rhetoric, bias, fallacies of reasoning, spin and advertising, analysis of argument, evidence evaluation, forensic investigation, advocacy.
• critical thinking: scientific enquiry, empiricism, experimentation, analysis, rationality and the ethics of rationality, basic statistics and modeling, textual analysis and criticism, case studies.

Common Core for K–12 Citizens
Taking a leaf from the German gymnasium or French baccalaureate system, all pre-university students should have their education directed according to a core curriculum from the age of six to the age of eighteen. The core curriculum must have some basic compulsory subjects to be pursued to the completion of high school: mathematics, one science subject, two foreign languages, and civic education, where all pupils learn the basics of democracy, human rights, the legal system, and the Constitution.

If we are to create autonomous individuals prepared to vote and participate responsibly in democracy, the benefits of civic education are obvious. Mathematics is necessary for anyone considering a higher degree in the sciences, economics, and business studies. Science and scientific methodology are responsible for some of the greatest achievements of the human mind, and we cannot ignore our place in the universe or fail to be moved by the discoveries concerning the cosmos. Foreign languages must be learned in an increasingly global economy and our growing political and cultural interdependence, but they remain a basic necessity for anyone pursuing research in the humanities—history, archaeology, the social sciences, and comparative literature.

Sylvia Wasson
, Professor of German, Santa Rosa Junior College; Board Member, American Civil Rights Coalition and California Association of Scholars
Browsing through the posted “learning outcomes” of my colleagues’ courses on the district website, I stumbled across “Psych 34: The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination.” Notorious among students for its biased content and the doctrinaire professor teaching it, the course—transferrable to the California State University and the University of California—describes in chilling specificity an anti-white, anti-establishment, and outright racist teaching agenda. A brief excerpt of the stated learning objectives must suffice:

Upon completion of this course, students will be able to:

1. Examine the history of racial formations and social construction.
2. Evaluate major theories on white privilege, prejudice, and discrimination.
3. Define and analyze the dimensions of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism.
4. Analyze patriarchy and the system of sexism.
5. Identify ways to dismantle systems of oppression and become agents of change.

There is no more hiding from the truth. The claims of a highly politicized academy, as contained in studies like Academically Adrift and A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California are veritable after all. And the irony is that we now can prove it through yet another sacrosanct higher education concept: the “outcomes assessment” movement.

Let’s use the “assessment language” gathered from publicly posted learning outcomes as proof that politicization is a serious problem on our nation’s campuses. Let’s “do a Saul Alinsky” on the deniers of indoctrination: Let’s work from within.

Bradley C. S. Watson
, Philip M. McKenna Professor of Politics; Co-Director, Center for Political and Economic Thought, Saint Vincent College
Rely on primary sources exclusively. This can be done readily in most social sciences and humanities disciplines. Even most natural science disciplines could assign more primary source readings to good effect. We’ve made this move in my politics department, where the major is organized around the key writings of the American political tradition and the Great Books of Western civilization.

The students, institution, and faculty all benefit. Students learn that the textbook industry is a racket and aren’t stuck with the sixth edition of a $125 textbook that the impending seventh edition will make worthless. If they’re studying, say, the U.S. Constitution, they won’t have to ingest the selective interpretations of some contemporary racketeer, but will read the original document—along with The Federalist, the anti-Federalist writings, Washington, Jefferson, Madison et al.

The institution benefits for many reasons, notably that this approach encourages, if not requires, departments to hire thoughtful faculty members who love discussing books more than they love careerist strategizing. It’s also an effective marketing tool: students and parents remain open to the idea that rigorous liberal learning is a good in itself, which, done well, prepares students for jobs and life. The faculty benefit because of an academic culture that encourages and rewards the type of life that originally drew them to the academy.

This approach requires wrestling conventional departments into submission and engaging teachers competent with the materials. But it’s a fight worth having. Once the main battles are won, the victors will draw several good students for every one lost to less demanding pursuits. And there’s nothing like the feeling a teacher gets when some of those good students thank him, years later, for having taught them something important.

Robert Weissberg
, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Illinois–Urbana
Making American higher education the best on the planet, at least in principle, is a snap. To use Chinese phraseology, let’s call my plan “The Three Eliminates.”

First, eliminate all second- and third-tier colleges. With scant exception, most provide little of intellectual value while pushing youngsters deeper into debt. Second, among institutions surviving this cut, eliminate all bogus departments, especially anything with the name “studies” in it. These add nothing of intellectual value. Third, further eliminate all administrators whose job lacks a clear-cut relationship to promoting academic achievement.
There you have it—Creative Destruction on a grand scale. Today’s 4500 colleges and universities, perhaps by attrition over a decade, will be pared down to maybe 200 and the herd of 2.8 million faculty will now number about 100,000.

Yes, this solution is über-draconian and politically unlikely, but it guarantees outstanding higher education without perpetual tinkering; it also sharply identifies what really plagues American higher education—the people in it. And it’s not as draconian as it appears. Much that these defunct colleges and universities once accomplished can be done better and cheaper elsewhere.

Now, to continue my Chinese phraseology, we face “The Three Obstacles.”

One, what happens to the now vacant collegiate real estate? And the endowments? Two, how do we address the massive unemployment for all the millions whose livelihood once depended on the local campus? Three, how do we soak up the 14,000,000 now former students—thanks to the Great Elimination—especially in today’s tough job market? I have ideas, all good ones, but let me just say that America has survived, even benefited from comparable upheavals. We can adapt.

John Wenger
, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, Harold Washington College; Former Editor, Science Insights
One of the biggest dangers facing higher education today is its costs. My wife remembers my tuition being around $1200 a year when I started graduate school at the University of Chicago in 1963. Obviously, things have gotten out of control since then. Here are three suggestions on how to cut costs while simultaneously improving education:

1. Eliminate unnecessary departments. Women’s studies and black studies head my list. That doesn’t mean that these topics don’t deserve study, but I see no reason (other than the obvious and odious political ones) why they need their own departments and line items in the budget. These studies should be farmed out to sociology and political science, where it’s easier to trim the fat. This would also force students to choose majors with some intellectual heft.

2. Cut the number of administrators. A general rule of employing no more than one administrator for every ten teachers ought to do it. One way to accomplish this: get rid of all compliance officers and let common sense substitute for most of what they do. Fight the federal government when it makes crazy demands, like offering the same number of sports for women as men even if women don’t want them. If that doesn’t work, eliminate college sports and use the football stadium grounds to build single-sex dormitories so students study some of the time instead of fraternizing with the enemy.

3. Stop the proliferation of unnecessary requirements. As an example from my own field, you don’t need calculus to be a pharmacist, architect, physical therapist, or physician. You do need it to be truly educated, in my humble opinion, but in all fairness Shakespeare managed quite well without it.

Austin Williams
, Director, Future Cities Project; Lecturer in Architecture, XJTLU, Suzhou, China
College and university departments should collect all the sustainability activists, energy monitors, risk assessors, eco-auditors, environmental policy advisors, carbon-reductionists, climate-trainers, initiative-junkies, wonks, geeks, jobsworths, and other bean-counters and ask them to leave the premises.

There will be four immediate effects:

1. There will be a massive reduction in paper costs, moralistic Powerpoint presentations, vacuous spreadsheets, and fatuous offset schemes that pontificate about saving the planet. In other words, energy bills will shrink a hundredfold.
2. The productivity of academic staff, i.e., the intellectually fruitful members of a university, will be liberated from the tyranny of the recycling bin and the green lifestyle bullies.
3. After the clear-out, research activity can be reinvigorated as an intellectual pursuit—without the dilemma of having to shoehorn “sustainability” into the title of every application in order to secure funding.
4. After effects 1 through 3 have been resolved, universities will be forced to talk meaningfully about their raison d’être: education. They will have to legitimize themselves on the basis of academic rigor and teaching excellence, as opposed to the dubious merits of a Carbon Management Certificate.

This framework is actually not that ambitious, but given that environmentalism is so entrenched in campus discourse, it is also highly improbable. Were it to come to pass, we could focus on the quality of our admissions, rather than navel-gaze about our emissions.

Kevin Williamson
, Editor and Writer, National Review
Journalism is not an art and it is not a science—it is a low-skilled profession that can be learned in six months working on the school newspaper, if that newspaper is worth a damn. The undergraduate degree in journalism is purely a product of journalists’ intellectual vanity and their desire to turn their formerly blue-collar profession into a credentialed occupation such as law or medicine. Students who wish to work in journalism would be far better served by spending four years studying something that matters in order graduate from college knowing something about something.

Knowing something about something is a fine and rare thing in a journalist, and there is a great demand in the profession for people with at least an undergraduate-level command of science, statistics, economics, and foreign languages. Of course, students smart enough to get decent grades majoring in science or economics will have career prospects that in most cases compensate them far better than does journalism, which means that wages would need to rise to get these matriculates into the industry. Which is to say that abolishing the journalism major would in one elegant blow improve both undergraduate education and the profession of journalism.

It says something about the intellectual quality of undergraduate journalism programs that their cessation would improve the enterprise they purportedly feed talent into, but I don’t doubt that this is the case. (Other candidates for extermination include undergraduate business and public relations degrees; and students in colleges of education should probably be put into reeducation camps.) Standardized test scores indicate that undergraduates in journalism programs aren’t the best and brightest. Four years of teaching them to misspell “lead” won’t improve that, whereas slogging through macroeconomics or German poetry might.

Terry Wimberley
, Professor of Ecological Studies, Florida Gulf Coast University
As the founding dean of what is now the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) in Fort Myers, Florida, it pains me to proffer this suggestion for improving America’s colleges and universities: eliminate the bachelor’s degree in education and require all schoolteachers to get a bachelor’s degree in a subject area and proceed to earn an M.Ed. or an M.A.T.

This was my intent when I started FGCU’s education school in 1995, taking as role model the outstanding program at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where schooling for public education occurs exclusively as a graduate degree option. Trinity graduates were in high demand across Texas and beyond, principally because they demonstrated mastery of a subject area and had acquired skills in teaching their area of content.

My efforts to implement that approach at FGCU were met with stiff faculty resistance and even stiffer resistance from administrators who were depending upon all those undergraduate education majors to populate our student body and on the basis of university enrollment to generate additional state contributions to our higher education effort. In effect, I ran into a cultural barrier in which education faculty colluded with administrators to protect their turf and their jobs. Recognizing that I had encountered an irresistible force, I surrendered in frustration.

This outcome was tragic and typical in many regards. Our current model of teacher preparation is guaranteed to produce inadequately prepared teachers who will send inadequately prepared students into our university classrooms and the workforce. As bad as this outcome is, another component of teacher education is equally problematic: the degree to which education faculty and graduates tend to assume an unyielding politically progressive social orientation.

Let’s move education schools in the direction of serving graduate students only. Hopefully, these programs will focus assiduously upon their students’ educational needs and pursue content-oriented approaches in a fashion equally tolerant of conservative, moderate, and progressive politics. The effort will take years. Despite the investment required, the prospects of better educated and more socially and politically diverse education faculty and students more than justifies our time and effort.

R. H. Winnick
, Independent Scholar
As the Watergate hearings dragged on over the summer of 1973, Sam Ervin, chairman of the Senate’s select committee investigating the scandal, had multiple occasions to say, “Some concession must be made to the brevity of human life.”

Maybe a similar concession partly explains why English majors at a lamentably large and growing number of colleges and universities are no longer required or expected to read the canon of English and American literature as a condition of graduation.

I’m willing to grant, for Ervinian reasons, that no English major must do more than dip into The Faerie Queene, The Prelude, and Finnegans Wake. But not to be required or expected to read—thoughtfully, critically, and in their entirety—Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear? Moby-Dick? Great Expectations, The Scarlet Letter, Vanity Fair, The Great Gatsby, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Sound and the Fury? And generous helpings of the poetry of Keats, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Whitman, Eliot, and Frost?

If there are going to be English majors still worthy of the name, professors, college administrators, trustees, and interested “civilians” need to remind themselves—and do a better job of reminding students—why great literature is worth devoting the time and effort to serious study.

Something about knowing what it means to be a human, moral, and thinking being. About where we fit in our community, our civilization, the universe. About how we think about our lives, and prepare for our deaths. Sam Ervin may have been right, but there’s also something to be said for another dictum from another age: Ars longa, vita brevis.

Matthew Woessner
, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg
Preserve Free Society

Given their limited understanding of history, students often fail to recognize that free societies, governed by the rule of law, are more the exception than the rule. Although America is among the world’s oldest democracies, its constitutional framework isn’t invincible. To instill an appreciation for the fragile nature of democracy, colleges should adopt a course that examines the rise and fall of democratic societies. The course should also help students examine why republics fail and how citizens can contribute to the preservation of a free society.

There is no precise formula for how to teach this course. One approach could focus on the fall of democracies in modern times. An exploration of the decline of the Weimar Republic, or the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela could prove instructive, because it allows students to explore contemporary examples of democracies in crisis. For the last decade, I’ve examined the issue by focusing on the rise and fall of free states in the ancient, medieval, and early modern world.

Many students are drawn to the human drama surrounding early struggles for freedom in Athens, Rome, and Britain. Athens’s victory over Persia, followed by the tragic execution of the Peloponnesian War, reminds students that democracies are not infallible. The decline of the Roman Republic provides a vivid illustration of how sporadic political violence can rapidly cascade into lawlessness. Although the forces of democracy miraculously prevailed, we study the protracted struggle for power between Parliament and the English monarchy, as it provides clues to the Founders’ motivation for resisting English colonial rule.
Examining the struggles for freedom in Greece, Rome, and Britain helps students understand that democratic societies can, and sometimes do, lapse back into despotism.

Foster Academic Diversity

Conservative think tanks should attempt to diversify academia by encouraging talented conservatives to join the professoriate.

One of the most prominent and arguably tragic features of higher education is the lack of ideological diversity among the professoriate. The Left’s dominance in academia is so pronounced that a student can complete a four-year degree without being exposed to conservative ideas, let alone work with faculty who dare to challenge the liberal orthodoxy. For students specializing in organic chemistry or genetics, this probably doesn’t affect the quality of their college education. For undergraduates interested in the social sciences, an education rooted in a single ideological worldview—liberal or conservative—is by definition incomplete.

There is no definitive explanation for the Left’s dominance among the professoriate. To combat the ideological imbalance, prominent right-leaning think tanks should take concrete steps to encourage conservative students to seek careers in higher education.

Conservative organizations can broaden the ideological diversity of the faculty simply by promoting the paths available to young conservatives. For conservatives interested in investigating public policy controversies, for example, political science is a relatively friendly field. Its affinity for quantitative methodology and a vibrant enclave of non-leftist practitioners means that diligent scholars can conduct serious research and still secure tenure. Conservative organizations can also provide targeted funding opportunities for students to travel to professional conferences. Once they begin to consider higher education careers, conservative students will need to become familiar with the norms and expectations of academic life. Finally, influential think tanks can create publications aimed at young conservatives that highlight research by prominent conservative/libertarian faculty. This provides role models and gives aspiring graduate students clues about where to pursue a Ph.D.

Tom Wolfe
, Ph.D., American Studies, Yale, 1957; Author, Back to Blood
Three changes would make their college years more valuable to students:

1. Cut undergraduate education from four years to two. Oxford and Cambridge have only three years, and most Oxbridgers consider that one year too many. Four years marinates students in two years of entertaining sloth, creating unwanted habits much more difficult to remove than unwanted hair. Two years will put even the “greatest” universities on par with community colleges, benefiting both. Imagine how many eyes will open up like—swock!—umbrellas when they discover that community college students take the content of courses far more seriously than university undergraduates. Both will graduate with bachelor’s degrees, greatly increasing the value of a community college education.

2. Limit the curriculum, over the two years, to remedial education and core subjects—without ever uttering the words “remedial” and “core.” All students will be forced to take courses in history, rhetoric, algebra or statistics, biology, and sociology. Needless to say, the word “forced” is not to be mentioned, either. Rhetoric will slyly include basic grammar and drills such as parsing sentences—in addition to basic training in prose styles. “Grammar” and “drills” will be taboo terms, too.

3. Male students will have a dress code requiring long-sleeved cotton shirts (ties optional) and conventionally cut jackets—e.g., no jacket collars wider than the lapels—whenever they are on campus. Female students will abide by a dress code that, without saying so, makes it impossible to dress in the currently highly fashionable (among young women) slut style.

If the students complain that these codes make them look different from most other people their age, the reply is, “Now you’re catching on.”

Image: "100" by Ricardo Bernardo // CC BY-SA

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