The year 2014 was a discouraging one for American higher education. Over the last twelve months, too many universities have been squandering what has been up until now their greatest source of support—the public’s respect and loyalty.
This drop in consumer confidence has been some time in coming. A 2012 national Pew survey finds that 57 percent of prospective college students no longer believe a college degree is worth the cost. The same survey finds that 75 percent of prospective students now believe that a college degree is simply unaffordable.
The distress felt by prospective college students and their parents has been translating into action. A Sallie Mae survey finds that the average amount students and their families are paying for college has fallen for two consecutive years. “American families reported taking more cost-saving measures and more families report making their college decisions based on the cost they can afford to pay.” In this, the college-going public is simply reacting to the hyperinflation that has driven average tuition costs up 440 percent in the past quarter-century, forcing families to rack up $1.1 trillion dollars in student-loan debt today.
In addition to its recognition that tuition costs and student-loan debt are escalating at unsustainable rates, the public also appears to be gleaning the fact that the quality of learning at too many institutions is lackluster. Here in Texas, a Baselice and Associates poll, commissioned by the Texas Public PolicyFoundation, found that ninety percent of voters believe there should be measurements in place to determine the effectiveness of the public education delivered and material learned by students at colleges and universities. These voters’ desires are supported by the findings of the 2011 survey of collegiate learning, Academically Adrift, which reveals that 36 percent of college students nationwide show little to no increase in fundamental academic skills—critical thinking, complex reasoning, and clear writing—after four years invested in college.
Rather than take these concerns seriously, some American universities in 2014 have only further justified—by further inflaming—the public’s angst. They have continued to demonstrate that theirs is a different agenda. To see this, consider some of the highlights, or lowlights, of the year just completed in higher education.
To begin, we were subjected to a chorus of campus “dis-invitations” of speakers whose political views run athwart the current dictates of campus political correctness. Scripps College revoked Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist George Will’s invitation to speak because of the perceived noxiousness of his views. Not to be outdone in championing intellectual intolerance over the free exchange of ideas, the Rutgers University Faculty Council passed a resolution condemning the unanimous decision by the school’s Board of Governors to invite former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to be its 2014 commencement speaker. Why? According to the faculty council, “A Commencement speaker… should embody moral authority and exemplary citizenship.” In the faculty’s eyes, Dr. Rice, an African-American woman and former Provost (chief academic officer) of Stanford, offers “no positive merit” to university life.
Such actions appear to be part of an apparent trend on some of our campuses, as illustrated by developments at Pennsylvania State University. Penn State officials recently barred students from passing out copies of the U.S. Constitution—despite the fact that it was Constitution Day (September 17) and the students were passing out the document in an area explicitly designated by the administration as a “free-speech” zone.
Finally, even after Academically Adrift’s bombshell revelations regarding poor collegiate learning, the University of Virginia decided this spring to devote precious time and resources to a “Condom Olympics” consisting of “free food,” games, prizes, “free condoms,” and “free lube.” “Sex facts and trivia” were also among the offerings.
The above list provides only some of the examples from this year of the anti-intellectual projects and events currently on some schools’ agendas. Rather than address the twin crises of rising tuitions and lackluster learning, too many universities have continued their march toward irrelevance through acting, not as educators, but rather, as the keepers of ideological purity. They have become defenders, not of free and open debate, but of conformity and closedness. And they don’t seem to know how to stop—despite the growing rift that they are creating between themselves and the society they ostensibly serve.
These efforts at self-marginalization are made only worse by the shocking data on recent post-graduate outcomes. As Arum and Roksa report in Aspiring Adults Adrift (2014), two years after graduation, 24 percent of graduates have been forced to move back home with their parents, and 74 percent of college graduates “are receiving financial support from their families.” Only 47 percent of working graduates enjoy fulltime jobs that “pay $30,000 or more annually.
Add to the above the fact that a 2012 study of college finances finds that, on average, university debt is increasing at an annual rate of 12 percent, which is more than twice the rate of instruction-related expenses. Due to over-building, over-diversifying, and over-borrowing, says the study, approximately one-third of all higher-education institutions today find themselves trapped in an unsustainable business model.
As traditional higher education recedes into irrelevance—financially, academically, and morally—alternative methods of higher education are beginning to rise. Some community colleges are beginning to offer four-year degrees, and at a much lower price than traditional four-year schools charge. Also, according to the Babson Survey Research Group, which has tracked online learning over the past decade, “the rate of growth in online enrollments is ten times that of the rate in all higher education.” Over 6 million students enrolled in at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year.
If nature abhors a vacuum, then the abyss dug by today’s universities will be filled by modes of education more palatable to and affordable for today’s students and their parents. What will the new paradigm look like? No one knows for sure, but one thing seems clear: While universities are free to embrace irrelevance, their free lunch of loyalty and respect from the larger culture is ending.