Robert L. Paquette’s Liberty Forum essay describes the ideological and intellectual devastation of our colleges and universities—the squelching of free thought, the embrace of socialism, the lowering of academic standards, the crackdown on intellectual diversity, and the frantic pursuit of racial and ethnic diversity. His metaphors are vivid—he illustrates the last stand of the principled professor as the Battle of the Bulge, one that the professor is not going to win. And he tells a fable revealing the long, secret history that preceded the demise of the academic city. In particular, Paquette draws a damning picture of today’s small liberal arts college, noting that larger colleges and universities offer some ideological balance through sheer size.
At the moment, the left-wing tilt and the “dumbing down” of academic demands look pretty solid. But appearances may be deceiving. In this essay I will explore the likelihood of change.
Let me first outline two commonly held views of our university system and its future.
The Bubble Theory
One view is that a “bubble” is about to burst. This refers foremost to the $1.3 trillion student debt that graduates are carrying (parallel to the mortgage bubble that burst in 2008), but more generally, it is applied to the traditional four-year campus experience in its entirety. Both, the argument goes, will collapse as the costs of tuition and lodging keep going up and as online technology offers cheaper options, including short-term, competency-based courses that can be integrated with work. Also fueling this trend is a job market that is becoming flooded with diplomas, so that college graduates have a hard time differentiating themselves to get white-collar jobs—while well-paid practical jobs like HVAC technician and plumber go begging.
The closures will start, the argument goes, with small non-elite schools in out-of-the-way places. As for the survivors, falling enrollment will put pressure on university budgets, including state budgets that support large public universities. The combination of low-cost alternatives (from coding boot camps to online schools like Utah’s Western Governors University) and the inability of the universities to cut their costs will force shutdowns. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has famously predicted that perhaps as many as half of today’s schools will be out of business in 10 or 15 years.
Christensen’s point is that industries can seem to die almost overnight if threats that have been building are not taken seriously. A classic example is the “minicomputer” industry, which, in the 1970s had very large computers produced by highly respected companies like DEC and Wang. (The industry’s name came from the fact that the computers were smaller than the even bigger behemoths of the 1960s.) The companies could ignore the garage experimentation of Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak—until suddenly they couldn’t, the personal computer having quietly become a full-blown, sophisticated competitor almost unbeknownst to the big firms. Soon after, the companies folded. A similar story took place with the transistor radio, whose decline ultimately destroyed RCA, once a dominant producer of vacuum tube-based television and radios.
It’s now been a decade since the college “bubble” predictions were first made, and most colleges are still upright and functioning as usual. Nevertheless, administrators, especially of small, non-elite colleges, are worried. The Council of Independent Colleges recently held a meeting for college presidents with sessions on “Enrollment, Marketing, and Today’s Students: Getting Them and Keeping Them,” “Lower Cost Models for Independent Colleges,” and “Presidential Considerations for College Mergers and Acquisitions.” Rick Seltzer of Inside Higher Ed reported that “a heightened sense of concern underpinned much of the organization’s annual Presidents Institute this year.”
A prestigious liberal arts college that illustrates the hazards, as Alana Dunagan of the Clayton Christensen Institute observes, is Oberlin College in Ohio. This past fall, Oberlin experienced a decline in enrollment; it had expected 2,895 students and only 2,815 enrolled. “But that shortfall led to a $5 million budget gap, two years of salary freezes, the elimination of faculty research grants, and a college-wide search for more fat that can be cut,” wrote Dunagan. This is the case even though Oberlin charges students $69,000 a year and has a seemingly healthy endowment of $770 million.
The Stability Theory
The other theory is that, while the pressures are genuine, most colleges and universities will be able to resist them without having to make significant changes. Only five or so schools close each year. (That’s out of about 4,700 schools that grant postsecondary degrees.) In 2015, Moody’s warned that closures could triple, but that would raise the number to only about 15 per year.
A new study looked at 491 small, non-elite colleges that had been originally surveyed in 1972. The researchers found that 72 percent were still in business, pretty much unchanged. About 12 percent (80 colleges) had closed and the rest had merged. Taken as a whole, the figures are not disastrous—and these schools were originally chosen because they were little-known institutions in the first place.
And while enrollment has declined overall for the past six years, the biggest decline has been at for-profit schools, such as Corinthian Colleges, whose demise can be largely blamed on attacks by an antagonistic Obama administration and Democratic Senate. Even when facing lower enrollment, most schools seem to be managing, partly by adjusting their discounts to attract more students.
Wealth and Faith
It’s difficult to know which future is facing higher education—change or stability—but in the spirit of Professor Paquette’s calling upon history, let us compare it to another extremely stable institution: the Catholic Church at the end of the Middle Ages. After nearly 1,500 years of existence, the Church looked as though it would last forever without fundamental change, even though it was at a moral low point, riddled with corrupt sales of indulgences and papal intrigues. It had withstood major heretics and dissidents (Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus), a schism with the Eastern Orthodox Church, and a divided papacy. What reason was there to think that the Church as the overarching spiritual force of Christendom might crack up? Yet it did.
With the Church in the year 1500 in mind, think about the similarities. In addition to sporting black robes and medieval regalia, our universities are (and the Church was composed of) vast and growing complexes attending to many needs. (The Church had charitable hospitals and cathedral schools and canon law; universities have medical schools, hospitals, law schools, legal clinics, even their own K-12 academies.) Both have, or had, their own strict professional hierarchies (chancellor and provost were originally ecclesiastical terms) and scholarly languages (Latin in the Church’s case, arcane idioms in the case of the universities). There are more sinister elements, too: a professional interest in sexual behavior (celibacy then, sexual harassment now), curtailment of heretical speech (then and now), and inquisitions for those who don’t follow the rules.
The problems of the Church were overridden for centuries by faith, both faith in God and in the Church as a conduit to God. The Church had become rich in large part from donations from wealthy patrons who believed their gifts could buy them salvation. Today’s universities survive and thrive based on people’s faith that a bachelor’s degree is the key not only to material success but also to maturity, good citizenship, and an appreciation of what is valuable in American society. While the universities aren’t selling salvation, they are selling hope.
Like the Catholic Church in 1500, our universities are wealthy. The $1.3 trillion student-loan figure (a figure bigger than all U.S. credit-card debt) indicates that students or their parents have been willing to borrow substantial amounts of money to attend college, even as tuition climbed at a rate well above inflation. Grandparents are in the picture, too, through tax-advantaged 529 plans. The federal government supplied $26.6 billion in Pell grants (in the academic year 2016-17) and spends billions on research each year—with hefty slices going to administrators. There is additional federal funding such as work-study programs and subsidies for historically black colleges and universities. Voluntary giving to colleges and universities reached $41 billion in 2016, and for public universities, all 50 states provide substantial support.
Another way to look at the wealth of colleges is to consider their endowments—funds built up by gifts from well-heeled donors and managed by prominent investment firms. They are big (a total of $535 billion according to the National Center for Education Statistics) because there is an unwritten rule that only the income from these funds can be spent; the rest is to be saved for future generations.
There is a lot of wealth. What about faith?
Faith in American colleges and universities is still strong. Try convincing middle-class parents of high school students that college might not be the best choice for their children. A colleague of mine raised the point at a public high school in Raleigh, North Carolina; she was met with a chilly response, and was not invited back. Had she brought up the issue with parents whose children were two years out of high school, she might have received a different reaction. Fewer than 60 percent of college freshmen graduate from their colleges within six years; many of them “wash out” at the end of the freshman year and then, perhaps saddled with debt, must seek a real job. College is not for everyone. Certainly, a four-year school is not for everyone, but the faith is still there.
The Chances for Reform
Whether ever-rising costs, mediocre outcomes in the job market, less expensive alternatives, or a sense of pointlessness will shake Americans’ faith in universities is far from certain. And even if it did, it’s not clear that that loss of faith would trigger a Reformation of the system. Nor am I eager to see it, since the actual Reformation was a cataclysm that resulted in a century and a half of war. Yet it ended in the creation of many religious alternatives and a reformed Catholic Church, as well. I don’t want years of turmoil, but I do want change.
A number of individuals and organizations have been trying to reform higher education. Are they Jan Huses and John Wycliffes, to be followed by an academic version of Martin Luther? Private organizations like the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (of which I am chairman), the National Association of Scholars, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Foundation for Individual Rights, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, to name a few, are trying to make universities freer, more efficient, and places of intellectual vibrancy and high academic standards.
On a statewide scale we have seen heroic efforts to transform public universities in Colorado and Texas, but they ended in political disputes and stagnation. Now, years later, state governing bodies in North Carolina and Wisconsin are trying again to rein in their public universities; this time they’re having some success. The University of North Carolina Board of Governors is insisting that campus centers be academic, not political; it is more independent of administrators because it has the freedom to hire its own staff; and the North Carolina legislature has passed a law protecting speech on campus. Wisconsin has protected speech, announced a reorganization of campuses, and developed performance metrics for the disbursal of some funds.
Nationally, Representative Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) has introduced a revision of the Higher Education Act that could reduce debt and provide discipline by making colleges partly responsible for repaying federal loans when students drop out. It would also let grants and loans be used for lower-cost, short-term courses. It does not, however, fundamentally undermine the university’s assets by getting out of the business of providing student loans. Thus the universities will remain about as wealthy as ever.
So, while Robert Paquette’s Battle of the Bulge may be ending badly, fighting elsewhere is still going on, and defeat may not be permanent.
More immediately, forces on campus are rescuing those students who want genuine cultural education. Centers and programs supporting “old ideas” such as free markets and intellectual debate have sprung up around the country. They include Robert P. George’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton, Wellesley’s Freedom Project, the Alexis de Tocqueville Center at Furman University, Zach Wood’s Uncomfortable Learning speaking series at Williams College, Adam C. Smith’s Economics Club at Johnson & Wales University—and there are many more.
Foundations like the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Pope Foundation, and the Thomas Smith Foundation are supporting projects, small and large, that enable the remaining free-market and traditional faculty to introduce ideas to undergraduates that they would otherwise never hear of. Robert Paquette’s own Alexander Hamilton Institute—prevented by faculty antagonism from staying on campus—succeeds in supplementing students’ education. Its goal is to “cultivate a genuinely free marketplace of ideas and promote excellence in scholarship through the study of freedom, democracy and capitalism.”
As long as a few scholars have such goals, some students will overcome the intellectual barriers and moral deserts that surround them. We can’t predict the future but right now we can save the remnant.