A new school year finds American colleges and universities under attack. Skyrocketing tuition, exploding student debt load, racial intolerance and sexual harassment are parts of the problem. But higher education’s business plan has collapsed, challenged by fiscal constraints of declining government aid, bloated administrative costs, and charges that the quality of its product has eroded, producing fewer students who are either job ready or academically proficient.
So much of this sounds like the complaints brought against K-12 public schools.
America’s public schools were criticized 32 years ago in A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report of Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, for producing a rising tide of mediocrity. It demanded innovations, reforms in educational bureaucracy and changes in the delivery of services. What was produced instead were charter schools, magnet schools, vouchers, open enrollment, and pay for performance. There were calls to eliminate tenure and fire teachers while holding them personally accountable for student performance. Then there was No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, employing market incentives, private schools, corporate restructuring of schools and threats of school closures. Finally there was high stakes testing, all aimed at improving educational performance.
Yet as Amanda Ripley in The Smartest Kids in the World and Diane Ravich in the Reign of Error and the Death and Life of the Great American School System point out, these reforms largely failed as measured by PISA and other international and domestic standards. They destroyed American public schools with generally untested and unproven ideas. They did little to improve scores, address the racial achievement gap, or improve college readiness. Now something similar is happening to higher education, led by three different groups.
First comes conservatives seeking a corporate transformation or restructuring of higher education. One option comes through the rise of for-profit private colleges, offering a game plan of expensive tuition and pricey administrators, delivered mostly with low cost adjunct professors in often cookie-cutter, interchangeable curriculum delivered online.
This is Fordism coming to higher education, especially with efforts to monetize MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses). The other option is traditional schools adopting this model; employing business leaders to run schools and developing cost containment policies aimed mostly at standardizing curriculum. It is top-down decision-making premised upon treating faculty no differently than an assembly line worker. If all of the curriculum is the same then it is possible to substitute one content instructor for another. The result: a market-driven product devoid of innovation, creativity, and intellectual challenge.
Liberals come second, often joined by religious conservatives, bent on enforcing political correctness on campus and in producing a curriculum that offends no one. Captured in the Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” there is a push to insulate students from ideas and words that they do not like. Across the country schools are adopting policies demanding trigger warnings or alerting faculty to forms of microaggression that students find objectionable. The result is not only an erosion of academic freedom but a curriculum that is uninteresting and devoid of learning.
Finally comes the accrediting agencies who have taken the assessment lessons from K-12 and are imposing them on higher education. They demand schools measure and test students and curriculum by developing a complex process of goals, objectives, rubrics. The idea, while well meaning, is to make it possible to evaluate student learning by essentially standardizing each course, such as an introductory politics class, regardless of who teaches it. Colleges and universities are devoting countless hours adding verbiage to syllabi and setting up assessment processes and committees to comply. The assessment movement adds an air of legitimacy to both the conservative corporate restructuring and liberal homogenization of classes by declaring such approaches do or will improve educational quality. But as Erik Gilbert’s recent article “Does Assessment of Colleges Make Them Better?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, the evidence for this assessment is largely lacking. The result then is a push for untested and unproven standardization of college education in a one-size-fits-all curriculum that offers little proof that it will improve student or institutional learning.
Good learning, as John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, is the search for truth; it is about confronting new ideas, exposing dogmas, forcing people to challenge themselves and confront their own biases. But what we see then as we enter a new school year is the life of learning being sucked out of higher education. Real learning, educational diversity, academic freedom—the core of what it used to contribute to the goal of the pursuit of truth—is being undone by reformers who while wanting to fix what is wrong with colleges, are actually destroying what made American higher education great.
David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in Minnesota and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.