The New Conservative Critique of Higher Education

I thought I would begin my stint at Innovations with an arc of blogs about the current conservative critique of higher education. I chose this topic because that critique has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Back in the early 1990s, I can remember being outraged by screeds such as Charles Sykes’ Profscam, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, all of which I felt were rife with misinformation, ad hominem attack and caricature of academia and especially academics. I just can’t get enraged by the new conservative critique of higher ed, because the nature of the arguments are so different, and persuasive to the point that they make me wonder where I, a registered Democrat, stand on the key issues.

So I’d like to focus on two very serious books, Jackson Toby’s The Lowering of Higher Education: Why Financial Aid Should be Based on Student Performance (2010), and my fellow Innovations blogger Richard Vedder’s Going Broke By Degrees: Why College Costs Too Much (2004). These are the most recent books by two very serious figures whose opinions simply cannot be dismissed. Toby is a professor emeritus of sociology who recently retired after years of service at Rutgers. Vedder, an eminent economist at Ohio University, also speaks from decades of experience. And both have transparently conservative connections. Toby’s book received funding from the Olin Foundation, while Vedder holds an adjunct position at the American Enterprise Institute. Nevertheless, I went into this self-imposed assignment determined not to jump to conclusions, not, in other words, to be unduly influenced by leftist assumptions about higher education that I have always embraced.

So here’s what I found: Both authors wrestle with a question essential to the future of American higher education. Is access to a college education a social entitlement, just like Medicare or K-12 education, or is it something else entirely, a privilege that should be available only to those teenagers who display intellectual curiosity and a zeal for more learning—not, in other words, the federal or state governments’ responsibility?

After reading Toby and Vedder, I can honestly say—I don’t know. I began by subscribing to President Obama’s pledge that the U.S. should regain its position as the country in the world with the highest percentage of college graduates (currently we’re seventh—Belgium is number one), and his vow that every American should experience at least one year of education beyond high school.

I came away from my reading much more uncertain about both of those pledges. The stakes are very high. If we acknowledge that we’re all obliged to participate in a knowledge-based economy, that’s an argument for striving for a more educated population.

But to do so we would eventually have to find an alternative to our current byzantine and often life-crushing financial-aid system, so largely dependent on borrowed money. The easy availability of students loans is, I believe, setting the stage for a meltdown similar to the subprime mortgage crisis, as waves of students will graduate unable to pay their debt. The money, if we do consider access to higher education an entitlement, would have to come in the form of grants, or, simpler yet, tuition and fee waivers, so that college would be free, just as public K-12 ed currently is. That would, of course, cost billions of dollars.

The alternative, to restrict college to the most intellectually gifted and ambitious, would mean that a great many of the 17 million students currently enrolled in America’s college and universities would simply be cut out of the system altogether. What would happen to them? Before I turn to Toby and Vedder, let me invite comments on that open-ended question.

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