Are Changes on the Horizon at US Colleges?


For years, I've been predicting major changes in higher education. One specific area that I've been targeting is standardized testing. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has dictated sweeping changes to college entrance requirements, with many colleges choosing to eliminate formerly required test scores for the forthcoming admissions season.

Others will argue this point, but I suspect that the so-called Operation Varsity Blues admissions scandal has also had a negative impact on testing because of the practice of admitting recruited athletes with markedly lower scores than non-athletes. Bribery was the main tool for corrupting the admissions process at the schools involved in the scandal, but the "side door" exploited was centered on athletes, exacerbating an already contentious aspect for getting into highly competitive colleges.

Changes are happening currently for multiple reasons, and other factors are poised to create even further change. One of those is the cost of college. More than ever, students and parents are beginning to question the value of a college degree when other avenues to success and happiness are available. Student loan debt resulting from meeting these high costs may be the biggest reason families are seeking educational alternatives. It's almost impossible to comprehend the $1.6 trillion currently owed by students who, in some cases, will be in debt for the rest of their lives.

Reform Could Be on the Horizon

If I were a college president, I would be taking a hard look at the rising tide of discontent and other headwinds facing not only my college but also higher education in general. I'd be looking for a reasonable analysis of how to deal with what's going on. An army of consultants are available who would be happy to study and report to me about how to approach these issues. Maybe I would hire one to counsel me, but first I would do my own research.

So, continuing my fantasy of college presidency, I did a search for an objective outsider's analysis of what's wrong with higher education and found an older one that was surprisingly prescient: The Outlaw Campus by Victor Davis Hanson. He cites 10 areas where colleges and universities are in need of major reform and gets straight to the point:

For decades, a college education has been considered the key to an ascendant middle-class existence … Until recently, a college degree was not tantamount to lifelong debt. In other words, American society put up with a lot of arcane things from academia, given that it offered something — a BA or BS degree — that almost everyone agreed was a ticket to personal security and an educated populace.

Not now. Colleges have gone rogue and become virtual outlaw institutions. Graduates owe an aggregate of $1 trillion in student debt, borrowed at interest rates far above home-mortgage rates … In short, the university has abjectly defaulted on its side of the social contract by no longer providing an affordable and valuable degree

Here are [some] areas that need radical reform

I'll highlight four of the ten and add some comments:

1. Tenure. Few if any other professions — not law, medicine, finance, engineering, etc. — offer guaranteed lifetime employment after a six-year apprenticeship. Tenure was predicated on a simple premise: The protection of faculty free speech and instruction was worth the possible downside of complacency and an absence of serious ongoing faculty audit

If a tenured college faculty member is almost entirely immune from judgment, sanctions or dismissal, this shield of protection can lead to excesses in behavior and imbalances in objectivity in the classroom.

3. Curriculum … Somewhere around 1980, a new generation of faculty created a whole new curriculum with the suffix "studies." The result was advocacy, not disinterested empiricism. Nationwide, thousands of traditional classes in history, philosophy, literature and the social sciences gave way to ethnic studies, women's studies, leisure studies, gender studies, peace studies, environmental studies, etc. Students did not receive the same degree of writing and reasoning preparation as in the old classes, much less the factual foundations of a liberal education. It was also nearly impossible to do well in these courses for a student who disagreed with the political assumptions of the advocate faculty. "Studies" contributed in no small part to the unfortunate emergence of the arrogant and ignorant graduate, who left the campus zealous for social change but sadly without the skills to even articulate his goals.

One of the main issues I have seen among college seniors seeking admission to graduate and professional schools is their inability to express themselves adequately in writing. Many of their written arguments in response to the "Why do you want to attend ______?" prompt seem sophomoric and pandering, riddled with inanities and pie-in-the-sky contentions, not to mention poor English usage. Hanson nails it.

5. Administration. Much of the recent explosion in annual costs is due to administrative bloat — special assistants to this and deputy associates of that … Private enterprise could supply all sorts of part-time administrative clerks to the university at a fraction of the present in-house costs.

This is one of the main reasons that colleges cost so much. An analogy might be charities where an overwhelming portion of donations go to administrative overhead. Hanson is right. Why does a college need to hire a special assistant or associate dean when a temp agency could provide the same for much less? If colleges were held to the same profit-loss standards of private businesses, much of the bloat would disappear. In our current higher education environment, there is a conspicuous shortage of serious bottom lining, even when we hear of hiring freezes or budget cutbacks.

8. Budget. Since university costs have gone up over 7 percent annually on average for the last two decades, it is past time for transparency, especially given the infusion of state and federal subsidies. How strange that universities will publish statistical data on almost every facet of American life — from racial matters to the environment — but not provide the public with a detailed breakdown of their own expenditures to allow students and their parents to understand why their tuition is priced as it is. Students should have the choice of deciding whether they wish to attend a college that budgets for rock-climbing walls, [or] an Assistant Dean of Internet Technology …

Perusing the various "college search" threads on the College Confidential discussion forums is enlightening when seeing what today's college applicants are looking for in the way of accommodations. Parents should have access to the types of outlays colleges are making to support their own administration, infrastructure and other overhead-related costs. Frankly, I don't see this situation changing anytime soon, since the heat in the public-scrutiny pressure cooker has not yet reached critical mass.

Check Accommodations During Tours

When applicants visit a college, they should make an objective comparison between the things they see and the school's annual student budget (the total cost of tuition, room and board, fees, books, travel and other costs of attendance). Is there an apparent positive correlation? There should be!

Hanson ends his critique with a highly focused contention:

In sum, we have allowed the university to become a rogue institution, whose protocols are often at odds with normal practice off campus and secretive to a degree unknown elsewhere.

The common theme of all university reform should be transparency. Faculties are superb self-appointed auditors of others; it is time we should extend the same audit to them as well.

If I were a college president today seeking to survive the onslaught of current threats and trends, I would take Hanson's advice about lowering overhead. I would use his Ten Commandments of college reformation as my guide — for free. No expensive consultants needed!

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