A uniform political bias dominates American higher education that may be attributed to a variety of factors. Not the least important is the fact that careers in higher education appeal to the politically correct. Conservatives are attracted to the professions and to careers in private sector industry. Thus the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is variously estimated at 8:1 in academia overall and in the humanities 12:1. One independent study of the Oregon State University system found one Republican—in the entire system.
If you add to that imbalance the lack of a core curriculum in studies essential for responsible citizenship and you have a "system failure" that assures that educated Americans know nothing about private enterprise, constitutional limits on government power, American history, the history of Western civilization, and the disciplines that formerly were part of a liberal arts education.
As a consequence, in a country of more than three hundred million people, there may be no more than ten colleges and universities that offer what for lack of a better word may be called a "conservative" education.
Some of those institutions have distinct "brands" that identify the principles they affirm. Hillsdale College does not participate in Title IV programs and attracts conservative scholars. Grove City also does not participate in Title IV and doesn't award academic tenure. Regent University and Liberty University affirm a unique millenarian Christian theology and were founded by prominent Protestant preachers who identified with the Republican Party. Smaller institutions such as Thomas Aquinas (California) and Christendom (Virginia) also have distinctive orthodox Catholic "brands." And Pepperdine is still firmly planted in the religious traditions of the Church of Christ and attracts highly qualified conservative academics.
Wealthy conservatives and traditional Catholic and Evangelical Christians support these institutions. But, only Liberty University and Regent University have embraced new technologies and used the Internet to grow enrollments to levels approaching those of other Internet giants. None has chosen to use their "brand" to grow enrollments in a mix of Internet/classroom facilities similar to the University of Phoenix, ITT, or DeVry. As a result, these institutions make enormous investments in physical campuses situated in one place: Hillsdale, Michigan; Grove City, Pennsylvania, Lynchburg, Virginia, Chesapeake, Virginia.
In other words, the mindset of the founders and current administrators of these institutions is fixed on the way higher education has been conducted from its earliest days. Though I have not reviewed the composition of the Boards of Trustees of these institutions, I assume that none have the type of Board leadership that would cause them to examine alternative ways of providing education opportunities, though surely all are aware of the desperate need to expand their enrollments, for the sake of the country.
For example, the Board of Trustees of Hillsdale College appears not to have thought of growing the Hillsdale brand by opening classroom facilities in office buildings in major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, or in the second rank of "major media" markets.
If you want a Hillsdale education, you have to go to a city in Michigan far distant from the nearest Interstate Highway where none of the amenities of big city life may be enjoyed. Nor is Hillsdale College disposed to create an entire Internet degree program or curriculum such as the one at Liberty University that claims enrollments of 80,000-plus students.
And even Liberty University, located in a small town near Appomattox, Virginia offers none of the cultural amenities of New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. These places are, frankly, places of exile where concentrations of conservative and traditional scholars labor without the benefits of culture that sustains their craft.
Consider that the first solely Internet-based university was founded before the advent of Web browsers and used DARPANET for students to gain access to course content. During more than a quarter century, only for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix grew, first with classrooms located in office complexes and, later, Internet programs. Hillsdale, Liberty, Regent, or even Grove City could offer a mix of Internet and classroom instruction in most large American cities with access to high concentrations of accomplished individuals who have earned advanced academic degrees. And, needless to say, none is exploring the use of MOOCs.
Why isn't there a Hillsdale College, Pepperdine, Grove City, Liberty or Regent University in leased office space in each of the top ten cities of the United States?
The answer, I'm afraid, is lack of interest and the manner that these institutions are managed. I admire the way they administer their traditional campuses, but there is nothing to admire about the manner in which they ignore their obligation to address the needs of students who can't travel to the small towns where they are domiciled.
All of these institutions have something very important to offer their fellow Americans including rigorous academic standards, orthodoxy in religion, and "traditional values" to use a concept that serves only to differentiate them from the cultural crackup evident across the landscape of American higher education.
The same criticism may be aimed at other institutions with distinctive brands including think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute. Each is staffed by highly education professionals, many of whom cannot find academic employment. Why not go into the education business?
Will this condition of indolence, or extreme caution, change?
A serious and disruptive shakeup in American higher education is imminent that may cause hundreds of colleges to cease operations, thus reducing local opportunity for educational advancement. Public institutions are primed to step into the gap with pedestrian programs at affordable prices, but growing the public sector in higher education is clearly not good for America.
Opportunity exists to provide excellence in education through new venues that Hillsdale, Regent, Liberty, Pepperdine and Grove City could exploit to expand their brands, if only they would act.
Instead of plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into bricks and mortar facilities, these institutions could move their brands across the nation in leased office space where students may take some courses in classrooms and meet to confer with mentors to discuss online course content.
That is the challenge these institutions face. Will they accept that challenge or remain in exile?
Richard J. Bishirjian is president of Yorktown University.