The Higher Education Act (HEA), first passed in 1965 and last reauthorized in 2008, lists the conditions that American colleges and universities must satisfy to be considered eligible to receive federal student grants and loans. By 2020, federal dollars accounted for about one-half the revenue of American higher education—and colleges and universities generally obey HEA regulations, for fear of swift bankruptcy if the Department of Education cuts off the flow of federal dollars. The HEA has reshaped almost every aspect of American higher education. It bans some actions by colleges and universities and gives “incentives” to others that are almost impossible to refuse. It sets forth the conditions by which colleges seeking federal funding must abide. Some of these regulations can be complied with easily. Compliance for far more is onerous and costly. All mold how our nation’s colleges and universities educate American students.
The National Association of Scholars believes that higher education should gather scholars and students to cultivate excellence and pursue the truth, transmit our heritage of Western civilization to a new generation, prepare cultured and virtuous citizens, and train students for vocational success. American colleges and universities should embody academic excellence and foster it in their students. Our institutions of higher education should strive to make their classes affordable, so as to make higher education accessible for any qualified student.
Because colleges and universities specialize in the subjects they teach and the students they serve, they ought to differ from one another in many ways. Cornell University and Cornell College have different missions; so too do Westminster College and Westminster Choir College. But we expect all colleges and universities to hold their students to rigorous standards, to protect intellectual freedom, to strive for modest tuition, and to prioritize teaching and scholarship over administration.
The Higher Education Act can and should encourage colleges to live up to these ideals. Here we set forth policy recommendations by which Congress can promote intellectual freedom, academic rigor, equal opportunity, affordability—and limit foreign interference, politicization, and administrative bloat.
Public vs. Private
Our recommendations recognize that colleges and universities are not islands to themselves. They are part of the larger American social order and have public responsibilities. This is especially true if they receive public funding or enjoy tax-exempt status. The common distinction between “public” and “private” colleges and universities can be misleading: both public and private institutions usually receive large amounts of public funding to subsidize student tuition and sponsor research. Public and private colleges and universities do differ in their status under the law, and the distinction is important, but most of our policy prescriptions apply to both.
State vs. Federal
Because all colleges and universities serve important public functions, they are appropriately subject to some forms of regulation. On the whole, the NAS favors state and local regulation of higher education over regulation by the federal government. State and local regulation is better suited to maintaining institutional autonomy and the diversity of educational approaches that is one of the great strengths of American higher education. Federal regulation is a homogenizing force that has often contributed to educational mediocrity.
Nonetheless NAS recognizes that since the passage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (the GI Bill) in 1944, and more particularly since the passage of the Higher Education Act in 1965, the federal government has played an outsized role in regulating American colleges and universities. The regulation will likely continue into the foreseeable future.
The immediate question for those who would reform American higher education according to the principles NAS sets forth is, “How best can we steer federal regulatory authority over American higher education towards more productive goals?”
Those who would divert higher education from its true purposes have long since learned to obfuscate their agendas with misleading labels and diversionary explanations. For example, when a college sets up a “free speech zone,” it is in fact declaring that free speech is prohibited at most times and places on campus. “Bias Response Teams” are presented as a way for campuses to weed out prejudice, but in fact they give political activists a weapon to ensure that their beliefs dominate campus discourse and marginalize views with which they disagree.
Even seemingly simple terms such as “access” and “affordability” sometimes don’t mean what they look like they are saying. “Access” to higher education is often the on-ramp to policies that mismatch students to educational opportunities, which exacerbates drop-out rates, the student debt crisis, and academic failure. “Affordability” is often hyped in support of policies that drive up college costs and promote wasteful spending.
As a matter of policy, NAS supports clear and unambiguous language in all laws and regulations in higher education.
The Political Landscape
Our policy recommendations differ radically from what leaders in both parties have promoted.
Democrats have made much of the promise of “free” college, if not to all students then at least to some significant number. They have pitched generous student loan terms or even full student loan forgiveness. They regularly urge all students to enroll in college, and all colleges to provide whatever “wrap-around services” and remedial coursework is required for those students to graduate. They promote social justice, “service learning,” identity politics, “sustainability,” and many other agendas that politicize higher education.
Republicans, on the other hand, have generally seen higher education as workforce development. They wish to improve federal student aid by streamlining the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and reforming loan repayment programs. They promote vocational learning, science and math (STEM) courses, and programs related to national security—and largely write off the rest of higher education.
Intent on making the government a content-neutral body and afraid to challenge the billions of dollars that Democrats routinely funnel to academic programs that are either politically biased or explicitly dedicated to progressive activism, Republicans have by their negligence abetted the very politicization they criticize. They may decry campus “free speech zones” and call foul every time a student is arrested for distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution. But Republicans have failed time and again to propose meaningful policy reforms that would actually reform higher education.
These proposals are different. They tackle the big problems of politicization and contempt for intellectual freedom. They demand severe cuts in higher education’s top-heavy administration. They take on the irredeemably politicized programs that are the hotspots of political correctness. They redesign federal student aid into a program that benefits students—not colleges. They hold colleges accountable for luring ill-prepared students who take on large amounts of debt for programs they will never complete.
Our proposals would restore higher education to its foundational principles of intellectual freedom and academic rigor. To achieve such a transformation will take courage—courage from elected leaders, from leaders of colleges and universities, from parents paying hard-earned tuition money, and from students who must choose whether and where to enroll in college. But it will be worth it. Therefore, we offer the following proposals.
In May 2020, NAS published another set of policy recommendations in Critical Care: Policy Recommendations to Restore American Higher Education after the 2020 Coronavirus Shutdown, which suggested guidelines for how federal and state governments should respond to the coronavirus pandemic. We wrote our recommendations in Critical Care to govern how federal and state governments should conduct a bailout of higher education, not as long-term recommendations for higher education policy. While some of our recommendations in Critical Care overlap with our recommendations here, many more do not—partly because these recommendations focus on emendations to the Higher Education Act, and partly because these recommendations focus on a longer time-frame than those of Critical Care. We encourage policymakers to draw more heavily on Critical Care for short-term solutions to the crisis in higher education, and more heavily on these policy recommendations for long-term solutions.
- Federal Legislation
- General Principles
- Title IV Federal Funds Eligibility
- Federal Student Aid
- Rigorous Academic Standards
- Title IX Due Process Protections
- Freedom to Learn
- De-Politicizing Campuses
- America's National Interest
- Educational Variety
- Equal Opportunity
- Education Department Procedures
- College Board Donate Join