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Woke but Broke: How US Colleges Are Pricing Students, Themselves Out of Business

In Academia, higher education, university on April 28, 2021 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Daily Signal.

Whether their leaders realize or admit it or not, American colleges and universities are on the verge of a crisis. And it’s a crisis, by and large, of their own making.

The National Association of Scholars last month published a report by Neetu Arnold, “Priced Out: What College Costs America,” which finds, among other things, that an undergraduate degree is now prohibitively expensive for many Americans, who have turned to the federal government to subsidize their education.

“The average price of college,” writes Arnold, “has more than doubled since 1980.” She adds that “[n]early 44 million Americans now owe more than $1.5 trillion in student debt.”

That’s a lot of money.

Several factors have contributed to widespread tuition hikes, including university expenditures that, Arnold suggests, aren’t directly related to students or education, but rather primarily to professional administration—that is, to the hiring of more deans and directors and officers to comply with the growing number of federal regulations and accreditation reporting requirements.

That’s just part of the story. The trend of profligate university spending goes back several decades.

After World War II, politicians adopted popular slogans and mantras regarding the necessity of college for all Americans, Arnold explains. The idea, however quixotic, that every citizen deserves a college degree has propelled government spending and set public policy priorities since at least the Truman administration.

The “college for all” narrative motivated passage of the GI Bill, the National Defense Education Act, and the Higher Education Act, which, although designed to make college more accessible, inadvertently drove up the price tag for a university degree.

The ready availability of federal student loans has enriched universities and their administrators on the backs of students, Arnold says. Meanwhile, the quality of education has diminished, and the students are therefore unprepared, or underprepared, for the job market.

Administrators also have reallocated time and resources toward student comforts and amenities, rather than educational rigor and intellectual diversity. However, education, according to Arnold, is “meant to elevate the mind by introducing students to new perspectives and unfamiliar ideas.”

Colleges have become so expensive, she says, in part because they depend on federal money and aid that come with regulatory strings attached. The more government bureaucracy and red tape a university must manage, the more it will spend on compliance officers and offices.

Add to government data tracking and retention of the many reporting requirements of accreditors, and the costs of university administration rise even higher.

Encouraged to take out a massive loan for education that they cannot afford, students burdened by debt delay marriage, family, career, and homeownership to the detriment of society writ large.

We are entering a period in which Americans who still have student loan debt have children enrolling in college and taking on student loan debt.

Arnold says that “universities raise their prices knowing that students will take out loans to pay for the increased price,” adding that students “will bear the consequences for their own bad judgment, but the university will escape scot-free with the borrowed tuition money.”

But what if universities had “skin in the game”?

That question underlies “income share agreements” by which universities subsidize a student’s tuition in exchange for a portion of the student’s future earnings. Such an arrangement demonstrates that the university is truly invested in the student’s future and not just interested in the student’s tuition.

As American colleges and universities have grown increasingly radical and progressive in their political messaging and orientation, they have financially exploited the very groups—the poor, ethnic minorities, and first-generation college students—that the left purports to champion.

“Universities allocate substantial financial resources to fund social justice activities—and even just to provide salaries for social justice administrators,” Arnold writes.

But these costs fall upon young students.

“Priced Out” proffers several fixes and corrections to the current system, including consolidating duplicate administrative offices and roles, facilitating information transparency regarding federal grants and aid earlier in the college admission process, creating vocational curricular tracks staffed by practitioners, and holding institutions financially responsible for debt incurred by students who do not graduate.

Yet more reform is needed. Arnold’s alarming and comprehensive report is just one small step in a positive direction. Universities that take Arnold’s criticisms to heart and adjust accordingly will likely outperform their competitors in the long run.

Given birthrate declines, diminishing international enrollment, and a growing belief among young Americans that a college degree is no longer worth the price, universities must change.

Elite colleges (e.g., those in the Ivy League), colleges with large endowments, and state flagship institutions will probably weather the storm, as it were, but small liberal arts schools are particularly vulnerable in this climate.

Universities that fail or refuse to adapt and evolve could face a grim future—or, worse, no future at all.

Keep an Open Mind and a Humble Heart, College Students

In university on November 13, 2019 at 6:45 am

Focus on Reining in the American Bar Association

In Academia, higher education, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Politics, university on December 3, 2018 at 9:25 am

This post originally appeared here at the blog of the National Association of Scholars.

What the 2018 Election Means for Higher Education

When the 116th Congress is seated in January, political control will be divided, with Democrats holding a majority in the House and Republicans in the Senate. What does this mean for higher education? We asked a few NAS members to weigh in.

What does the 2018 election portend for higher education?  The question might be reframed this way: having lost their majority in the House of Representatives, what can Republican lawmakers expect to accomplish in the field of higher education between 2018 and 2020? The answer, in short, is “not much.”  So long, for now, to the PROSPER Act and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Perhaps with some experience in Congress, however, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will learn what makes up our three branches of government—a minor gain for education in this country, but a gain nonetheless.

One promising development involves the Department of Education’s proposed Title IX guidelines that would amend rules regarding sexual-assault adjudications on college campuses to restore certain due-process rights of the accused. These guidelines have now entered a 60-day period of public comment; if they are adopted, they will go into effect in 2020.

Will Betsy DeVos remain the Secretary of the Department of Education through 2020?  Given the number of dismissals and resignations among President Donald Trump’s political appointees, the question is worth asking.  And if DeVos is out, who is in?  President Trump reportedly offered the job to Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, before approaching DeVos.  Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, was allegedly in the running as well.  But would leaders of this stature and reputation give up the success they enjoy at their present institutions to take a position they might hold for no more than a year?  Not likely.

If I had one suggestion for the Department of Education going forward, it would be to strip the American Bar Association of its accreditation authority over law schools, leaving state supreme courts and state bar associations to determine whether graduates of any given law school may sit for the bar examination in their state. This move would require pressure from law schools, state legislators, and state supreme courts. It could unite conservatives and progressives in common cause. As I have stated elsewhere, “In this period of political rancor, reining in the ABA should appeal to both the Left and the Right, the former on grounds of racial diversity and fundamental fairness and the latter on grounds of decentralization and economic freedom.” There’s much more to say about this issue (see, e.g., here). My hope is that it becomes part of the national conversation.

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