By Professor Doom
There’s no question that higher education has been in freefall (at many, not all of our institutions). Fingers are being pointed in all directions, from self-absorbed students, to lazy faculty, to bloated administration, to useless accreditation, to my favorite #1 culprit, the student loan scam. While all of the previous have played their part, take away the student loan scam financing it all and the rest become non-issues no matter how you look at it.
A recent article manages to point the finger at the Department of Education, listing seven ways higher education is worse today than it was in that “mythical golden age” the old professors talk about. I doubt such an age ever existed, but there is no doubt that higher education was far better in the past than it is today.
Let’s look at the 7 ways higher education is worse, as per the article:
First, of course, education costs have soared. Tuition fees rose more than three percent a year in inflation-adjusted terms, far faster than people’s incomes. As new research from the New York Federal Reserve Bank demonstrates, rising federal student financial aid programs are the primary factor in this phenomenon.
Hey, I agree this is far worse than higher education of the past, which was relatively cheap by comparison. But is this really the Department of Education’s fault? Only insofar as the Department of Education is responsible for the student loan scam, or, more accurately, as the Department foolishly trusted accreditors to do an honest job.
Second, if anything, college has become more elitist and less accessible to low income students. The proportion of recent graduates who are from the bottom quartile of the income distribution has declined since 1970 or 1980. The qualitative gap between the rich highly selective private schools and state universities has widened—fewer state schools make it near the top in the US News rankings, for example.
This is an interesting perspective, and I don’t see how the Department of Education is responsible for this (let me state here I’m no apologist for the Department of Ed, and have no argument for keeping it open), and the article provides no explanation.
Are the US News rankings even relevant? The article really needs to address this claim further—even if there is a decline, is it 30%, or 0.03%?
Third, there has been a shocking decline in academic standards. Grade inflation is rampant. The seminal study Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa shows that very little improvement in critical reasoning skills occurs in college. Adult literacy is falling amongst college graduates. Large proportions of college graduates do not even know in which half-century the Civil War occurred. Ideological conformity is increasingly valued over free expression and empirical inquiry.
The above is all very true, but I’m hardly seeing the Department’s hand in this. Again, the student loan scam, which provides money for any accredited institution that sells “credits” (not education, mind you, but college credits) is key here. Since the money doesn’t care about academic standards, those standards are no longer a part of higher education.
Perhaps later I’ll talk about the “adult literacy is falling amongst college graduates” because the writing I see from even fairly advanced college students is pretty frightening at times. My community college used to have a community forum where faculty could post; so many community college faculty (almost all of whom had English as a first language, and many with Education-type degrees) were so incapable of composing a coherent paragraph that we had to shut it down, it was just too embarrassing. (To be fair, the English faculty could indeed write well.)
Fourth, accreditation of colleges, overseen by the Department of Education, is expensive and ineffective. Few schools are ever sanctioned, much less closed for shoddy performance…Conflicts of interest are rampant.
This is probably the kindest, most generous assessment of accreditation as it stands today. UNC’s 18 year scandal of egregious fraud, with not even the slightest slap on the wrist from accreditation, is only one example. Across the country, schools “defraud” accreditation regularly to the point that racketeering is a fair charge to make against these acts. I put defraud in quotes because it’s quite obvious that there is no actual defrauding going on, as accreditation literally doesn’t care, which is why they’ve set up their system to be all but incapable of detecting fraud.
So yes, the Department of Education has failed to properly oversee accreditation, which in turn failed to oversee higher education. Since the latter was never meant to serve as an overseer (even if accreditors now charge for the service), I’ll concede the article’s point about the Department of Education being responsible here.
Fifth, the federal aid programs and “college for all” propaganda promoted by the Department have led to a large proportion (probably over 40 percent) of recent graduates being underemployed, working in jobs traditionally done by high school graduates. Arum and Roksa observe in their follow-up book Aspiring Adults Adrift that two years after graduation nearly one-fourth of graduates are still living with their parents.
Did the Department promote such propaganda? Perhaps…although the student loan scam is what physically put people into college, both indebting our youth for questionable coursework, and debasing the value of something that had value due to its scarcity…both of which contribute to most college graduates expecting parental support after college. (For what it’s worth, living with your parents probably should be a pro-family good thing, but in our culture, doing so is, indeed, a sign of failure, so perhaps 45% of recent college grads doing so is a good thing?)
Sixth, the Department is guilty of regulatory excesses and bureaucratic blunders. For example, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) imposes a “preponderance of evidence” standard on colleges in sexual assault cases that violates American ideals regarding due process and fair treatment of accused.
Note the usual standard for a crime is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, the kangaroo campus court system is so laughably biased that admin can get a conviction based on the flimsiest of charges (note: just the charges are sufficient, evidence is not necessary)…I just don’t see the Department’s hand here, especially since that looser standard doesn’t seem to get even fraudulent schools shut down in a timely manner (or at all).
Regulatory excesses? Sure, of course…but any school that thought those excesses were too much could just excuse itself from the system (and all that sweet student loan loot). This failure means nothing without the student loan scam.
Seventh, the one arguably useful function of the Department is to provide information to consumers and taxpayers about college performance. Yet Department bureaucrats have done very little to give useful information on student learning, post-graduate success, consumer satisfaction, et cetera.
Again, I must disagree. For well over a century, higher education did just fine without providing information to consumers and taxpayers about performance. Reputation and integrity at the institution were more than sufficient. Most universities in this country existed long before the Department was established in 1980.
The student loan scam destroyed that. Who cares about reputation, who needs integrity, when someone else is paying the bill, willing to pay tuition regardless of how foully run a school is? Much like public education, law enforcement, and FDA protection from marijuana, “free” things from government are questionable.
While reasonable people can disagree how much the Department of Education is responsible for the previous seven ways things are worse, the fact still remains: higher education is far worse today than it used to be. Get rid of the Department of Education? Sure, one can find no way this government institution has done any good since its inception.
But this is irrelevant to higher education. We need to get rid of the student loan scam, as above all other ways we could improve higher education, this is the cheapest by far, and almost certainly the most effective.