Fixing Education

We return today to one of the subjects that have continued here since we began: education. What’s wrong with it, and sometimes: how to fix it. Peter W. Wood had a very good (and quite long) article yesterday in The Federalist on this subject. I found it very good, both in identifying problems and proposing cures. See what you think.

How much would it cost to fix American higher education? Think big. In 2015, colleges and universities spent about $532 billion to teach 20.5 million students enrolled in two-year and four-year colleges.

That $532 billion figure is the lowest estimate in circulation. The National Center for Education Statistics gives the figure as $605 billion for 2013-14. But let’s stick with the humble $532 billion.

So how much would it cost to fix our $532 billion worth of colleges and universities? The answer depends, of course, on what you think is wrong with them and which of the possible repairs you favor. But let’s not get overly complicated.

Here’s What’s Wrong with Higher Education

American higher education is subject to five broad categories of complaint.

The progressive left criticizes it for reinforcing oppression based on race, class, and sex. American higher education favors the rich and abets unjust capitalism.

Pro-market and libertarian observers criticize its dependence on public funding; guild-like stifling of innovation; and hostility to capitalism. American higher education privileges itself.

Liberals, moderates, and conservatives criticize it for putting identity politics at the center of curriculum and student life. It fosters inter-group hostility, a grievance culture, psychological fragility, incivility, and contempt for free expression. American higher education is illiberal.

Those who support the classical liberal arts criticize it for trivializing higher education, turning the curriculum into a shopping cart, neglecting the formation of mind and character in favor of political advocacy, and estranging students from their civilization by elevating the false ideal of multiculturalism. American higher education is culturally corrosive.

A wide variety of people criticize its high price, frivolous expenditures, and increasingly uncertain rewards for graduates. The gigantic growth in the number of campus administrative positions relative to the faculty comes under this heading too. American higher education is too expensive.

It would be easy to add more items or expand any of these into a whole book. Many have done just that. But my goal here is to cut a path through the forest, not to linger over the variety of trees.

When I speak of fixing higher education, I discard the first category, the criticisms of the university as a font of capitalist oppression. It simply has no basis in reality. Each of the other four categories is cogent, and any real repair would have to address all of them. Moreover, they are deeply connected.

I won’t linger over their interconnections either, but it is important to keep in mind that the guild-like or oligarchic aspects of higher education undergird its illiberalism, incoherence, and excessive expense; and its culturally corrosive quality licenses its voracious appetite for public funding, suppression of intellectual freedom, and frivolity.

Four Proposed Repairs to Higher Education

Corresponding to the four legitimate categories of complaint are four broad categories of possible repair:

Fix the financial model. Reduce and restructure federal and state support for colleges and universities. Eliminate the regulations that favor the guild and prop up oligarchy. Unleash the marketplace, including for-profit, online, and other entrepreneurial alternatives to the dominant model of two and four-year colleges. Steer Americans away from the idea that a college degree is necessary for a prosperous career. Find new and better ways to credential people as competent in specific endeavors. The general-purpose undergraduate degree should face competition from alternative credentialing.

Dismantle the infrastructure of campus illiberalism. Eliminate grievance deans and programs; rescind all government programs that subsidize identity politics; insist that colleges and universities punish those who disrupt events or otherwise undermine free expression. Some call for eliminating tenure because it has become a bulwark for the faculty members most intent on redirecting higher education into political activism.

Restore a meaningful core curriculum. This repair has three varieties: create an optional core curriculum at existing colleges, leaving everything else alone; create a mandatory core curriculum for all the students at a college; create new colleges that start out with their own core curricula. Reversing the cultural corrosion of American higher education will take more than reviving core curricula, but by common consent, that is the first step.

Restructure federal student loans. This is, of course, part of fixing the financial model, but it is crucial if the goal is to reduce the ballooning costs of higher education. Colleges and universities are expensive for several reasons, including their very high labor costs and tendency to compete with one another by increasing their amenities (e.g., rock-climbing walls), but the underlying cost-driver is their ability to rely on federal student loans to subsidize their ever-expanding budgets. […]

Continue reading How To Start Fixing America’s Higher Education Crisis

I found it all very good, and some of it outstanding. Part of what I like is that he recognizes that not everybody needs a to go to a four-year college. In truth, most don’t. College (except perhaps engineering) is not supposed to be a trade school. And when you make it one you end up with BA degree holders flipping burgers, a very silly outcome, particularly since in our setup they owe impossible amounts of money.

Part of the problem that I see is that our secondary (and primary) schools are no longer fit for purpose, graduates are far too often both illiterate and innumerate, and so the private sector, pragmatic as always, simply requires a degree, thinking they will at least get a candidate that can read at some level and maybe do arithmetic. It’s not a solution really, but in reality, their problem is to do whatever they do with whatever widget they do it with and make a profit, not to fix the education system.

At some point, it may become bad enough for them to find it cheaper to fix the problem than to use avoidance strategies like degrees, but we aren’t there yet. If we get to that point – well we’ll pretty much have failed as a country so it won’t really matter all that much.

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About NEO
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8 Responses to Fixing Education

  1. the unit says:

    Yes, education needs to be fixed. “Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.” – G.K. Chesterton
    As I was spaying, education administrations and faculties need neutering for the fixing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Concur! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. the unit says:

    I was educated back in “the good old days.” Formal schooling that is.
    During College Zoology one day the student instructor was filling in for the prof. He was teaching about Platyhelminthes and said they are found in “da wada.” I raised my hand and asked “found in a wad of what?” I wasn’t trying to be smarty. I’d heard of “dura mater” before, but not “da wada.” He was very purtubed and wrote it out on the blackboard. THE WATER.
    I shoulda known he was speaking in Southern. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Love it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Citizen Tom says:

    I was a bit disappointed with the article.
    1. If we fix our K-12 model, our university system will have to change accordingly. When people realize that government should not be running our K-12 system, then it follows they will wonder why government is operating our colleges. In fact, they core of the problem is that we are letting government-run schools indoctrinate our children.
    2. The article identifies the problems well enough, but the solutions make little sense. I have no more desire for Conservatives to run higher education than I do Democrats. I want a marketplace solution. Should the Defense Department fund R&D at the universities? I even have my doubts about that. Frankly, I think most of that work should go to defense contractors. As much as possible, we should keep government out of the education business.
    3. Consider the section on parameters. Who needs a college education? What should a college education involve? Should the people paying for it be allowed to decide what they want? Then why is the government sticking its nose into it and paying the bill? If someone wants a college education, then they should pay the bill. If they are not willing to do what it takes to pay the bill, that is not the problem of people who don’t even want to go to college. People who don’t go to college should not be required to pay the bills of people who do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      I can’t really disagree with any of that, Tom. I don’t have too much problem with government funding (preferably at county or lower level) primary, and maybe secondary, education. No citizen is worth much to society if he’s completely illiterate. We just don’t have those jobs anymore, and it worked well until about the 50s. But College is an entirely different matter, and its cost is so bloated because of government.

      Like

      • Citizen Tom says:

        Government funding is arguable. I think it is wrong, but I can understand why people think it necessary, but we don’t have to have government owned and operated schools. Even if we concede that government funding is needed to educate the poor, that is no reason for government owned and operated schools.

        Just as the cost of college is bloated, so is K-12 education. Part of the problem is that what was once a local operation is now becoming a state and federal operation. So parents have less and less input.

        Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          It is arguable, I’m on the fence myself. But we’ve been doing it in some form since 1797. With reference to it being a local operation, I completely agree, when the states and feds took over is when it went bad, because there was no longer that local control. Mostly by parents, although most of the taxpayers were property owners, which at the time was nearly synonymous, and is likely why city schools were rarely as good.

          Liked by 1 person

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