Weekend with Mitch

Mitch Daniels’ attempt as president of Purdue University to define the leading edge of higher education reform is prominently featured by the Wall Street Journal this weekend. The full interview is definitely worth reading. Carrying over from his success as Governor of Indiana is his focus on wringing as much productivity and efficiency from each dollar spent and each bureaucracy operating. Daniels’ governorship was impressive on this front: he ended collective bargaining for state employees, outlawed mandatory union dues, instituted over great protest the nation’s most sweeping school voucher system, cut taxes, tried to privatize welfare, and was incredibly disciplined on spending, among other reforms.

Many of them didn’t just move the dial to the right but gave workers, parents, taxpayers, and employers reasons to favor their long-term consequences. For example, without collective bargaining or the ability to compel dues, union membership, private and public, now looks much different than before.  Fewer union members and fewer unions mean fewer threats to economic growth, fiscal probity, and limited government. Marrying good economic policy, incentives, and institutions with growth is the real path to political and state realignment. That feat may very well have been achieved.

There are those who would note—or in some cases object—that the state’s budgets during Daniels’ two terms were balanced by an entrepreneurial flair for finding federal dollars. There’s probably some truth to that. Bucking federal dollars is a good, but unfortunately rare, thing. Daniels’ overall record of achievement, surely, remains impressive.

So it isn’t surprising to see Daniels pointing, in the Journal interview, to the immense waste and sheer lack of productivity of higher education in America. Where to put the scalpel? How much money, time, and personnel resources are wasted on maintaining accreditation standards and complying with federal laws, rules, and regulations? To quote the former Governor:

All this time and money and in the end some really lousy schools get accredited, so I’m not sure what the student—the consumer—learns. An awful lot of make work involved, or so it seems.

The original purpose of accreditation was to protect students from worthless degrees. Instead, a cottage industry has sprung up, with its own bureaucratic agenda. Now the make-work minions have become their own interest group, one that resists finding better measures of value.

Daniels notes two facts of great significance.

“Studies show” that graduates who thrive after college do so because of how they went to college, not necessarily where they went. Connecting with a professor, sensing that instructors cared about your education, and mentoring, along with factors like engaging in a long-term research project and student participation were heavily cited by graduates who reported success in their immediate post-graduate years. That seems intuitively right.

Second, students and parents today put tuition and room and board way above everything else. A family’s willingness to accept a high sticker price, regardless of what aid package is offered, has eroded significantly. This is why, as the president of Purdue, Daniels decided to freeze tuition.

In the higher ed business this freeze, which is about to enter its third year, counts as abstemiousness. Even though it’s considered radical, President Daniels makes it sound like common sense:

I thought this whole process—it’s sort of like a bubble, and people are using that term—just couldn’t go on much further, and so why not get off the escalator before it broke.

Interestingly, Daniels’ institution is a land-grant college. The mandate of Purdue University, founded 1869, was explicitly tied to furthering progress in engineering, science, and other disciplines. Progress, as measured by the land-grant model, obviously intersects with economic growth pretty quickly. There is every case, then, to be made for the reforms he is attempting given the school’s starting point; its charter to exist is predicated on a type of utilitarian effectiveness.

Daniels also tells the Journal how he plans to measure the education received. He points to studies documenting how bad seniors are at what shouldn’t be considered rocket science: comparing and contrasting arguments that are made in op-eds. They also can’t write, it seems. This doesn’t come as news to me, but Daniels is willing to do something about it with a metric that shows growth in learning over four years.

Here, though, is where it gets interesting. The problem underlying the problem of the worthless degree is courses of education without writing or serious reading, without requiring any significant analytical or abstract reasoning.

So towering student debt, sub-optimal degrees, and decreasing demand for enrollment—yes, Daniels and many others are right, the higher education bubble will burst. We’re at the beginning of a striking change in how this form of education is delivered to students. What Mitch is doing might become standard—a franchise-like model, and in the very near future.

I’m skeptical, however, of the value-proposition language that many Republican politicians use in describing their ideal of higher education. The business-school-inflected concepts they draw on—indeed Daniels sometimes does this, too—tend to leave the liberal arts far behind. Surely the one thing needed in a middle class democracy, enamored with equality and wealth, but not much else, is education that gets our minds off of ourselves. History, philosophy, literature, I would add theology, are needed. The close study of texts, publicly discussed, and considered for what they reveal about the human person is valuable but its value can’t be precisely measured.

How can I show you that I’ve read and been read by Thucydides or Aristotle? Beyond a few facts and basic questions, I can’t. The knowledge I’ve gained in such instruction would emerge to you in conversation and in my writing. I would take it with me in my civic participation, as well—even into the voting booth. And if that’s so, a metrics test seems superfluous.

Significantly, while the liberal arts are open-ended, and supposedly not political, it is the study of the liberal arts that most challenges the easy conceits of social democracy and its endless paeans to progress, egalitarianism, and function. These are the very ideas and ideologies plaguing the reformers. In short, without a commitment to the liberal arts, one that is good enough to challenge politically correct groupthink, we have to wonder what resources will be available to us to reimagine an American civilization that isn’t defined by Progressivism.

Perhaps the point of mediation between unproductive liberal arts types like me and the data-driven types involves mentoring—finding a way, if there is one, to measure its costs and effectiveness. These are measurements that Daniels and other reformers stick on. I think we can find something to work with here.

Liberal arts study is cheap, and now that many texts are online, it’s really cheap. Those devoted to it usually find personal meaning in sharing it with others in ways beyond classroom instruction, and in stages of life beyond their undergraduate years. That’s mentoring. And make no mistake, effectiveness is a measurement that writes itself for the liberal arts graduate. The future of higher education surely has and must have a place for humane learning.