Americans say colleges are headed ‘in the wrong direction,’ and they’re right

Every so often, even in 2018, there are developments which reaffirm one’s faith in karmic justice. A new Pew poll of the public’s opinions on higher education offers one of those moments. Pew reports that 61% of the public believes that higher education is headed in the wrong direction.

Indeed, America’s colleges are losing support on both the left and the right, and for precisely the reasons that they should be. More than half of Democrats and those who say they lean Democratic think higher education is headed in the wrong direction. Of those who do, 92 percent say tuition costs are too high. Meanwhile, nearly three-fourths of Republicans and “Republican-leaners” believe higher education is headed in the wrong direction, and more than 70 percent of those are concerned about politicized classroom agendas and excessive efforts to restrict uncomfortable speech. Sometimes, it appears that common sense has taken a holiday, but these takes are hearteningly on point.

The truth is that, for all the high-minded rationalizations, blame-shifting, and finger-wagging proffered by college presidents and their apologists, the complaints from the left and the right are pretty much spot on. College is expensive, and getting more so. College presidents are happy to blame this situation on declining state aid or on the impenetrable mystery of how one might find ways to provide post-gendered explorations of Elizabethan sonnets at a more manageable price. Meanwhile, after adjusting for inflation, college costs have more than doubled over the past thirty years, even amidst the rampant “adjunctification” of higher education.

College presidents explain that this is unavoidable in people-intensive industries. This explanation would be more credible, of course, if the higher-education intelligentsia hadn’t consistently criticized legislation intended to address such concerns and opposed efforts by public officials like Senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee to open up the education space to more cost-effective providers. Indeed, a few years ago, in the instructive Harvard Education Press volume Stretching the Higher Education Dollar, Andrew Kelly and Kevin Carey offered examples of how some innovators are finding ways to slash costs or offer much more inexpensive pathways. Yet, one has to look long and hard to find many examples of colleges racing to put these ideas into practice.

Meanwhile, many of the same college leaders who somberly bemoan rising costs and the need for more public funds have cheerfully spent heavily on expensive amenities like climbing walls and lazy rivers, shoveled dollars into athletic programs, and added new layers of pricey administration. Indeed, the NCAA reports that the typical Division 1 institution spends more than $10 million subsidizing its athletic program each year. And, in one elegant illustration of how colleges keep driving up non-classroom costs, the University of California-Berkeley boasts an “Equity and Inclusion” bureaucracy that grew from three employees to 150 between 2009 and 2014, commanding an annual budget of $17 million.

As for Republican concerns about politicized classrooms and campus bias against “unsafe” (read: “right-of-center”) thought, it hardly seems necessary at this juncture to rehash the evidence. When chalking the name of a GOP presidential candidate on a sidewalk is itself sufficient grounds for a bias complaint, or when the president of the University of Michigan laments the results of a presidential election (while casually suggesting that those among his faculty and 45,000 member student body who voted the wrong way were motivated by “hate,” “fractiousness,” and a “longing for some sort of idealized version of a nonexistent yesterday”), there’s little question that campus culture has come to see whole swaths of right-leaning thought as largely beyond the bounds of decency.

But, for form’s sake, let’s note that in 2014, as reported by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, liberal faculty outnumber conservatives by 6 to 1. In the social sciences and the humanities, where ideology is most likely to influence curricula and classroom discussion, the disparity is starker still. In their 2016 Oxford University Press book, Passing on the Right, scholars Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn note that that self-identified conservatives make up only about 10 percent of social-science faculty and roughly five percent of humanities scholars — and document how those occasional “right-wingers” strive for safety and acceptance among colleagues who view them as novelties or nuisances. After all, sociologist George Yancey has reported in Compromising Scholarship that one in three sociologists say they’d be more likely to oppose hiring a new faculty member if they knew he or she was a Republican.

When confronted with concerns about the stifling impact of this campus monoculture, college leaders have dismissed them as a product of a “right-wing noise machine” and a non-issue. In a Gallup survey conducted earlier this year, when asked about free-speech rights, 80 percent of campus leaders insisted that there are no concerns about free expression on their campus — even as an earlier survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported that 54 percent of students say that they have stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion in class for fear of the reaction it would garner.

Of course, these concerns are neither novel nor new. They’ve been voiced time and again in recent years. That makes it tough to be optimistic that mere public censure will prompt college leaders to shake off their self-righteous assurance that constant price inflation and liberal bias are the natural state of higher education. For all that, it’s reassuring to know that Americans, on the left and the right, are seeing things clearly.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.

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