Is Order Emerging in Higher Education?

One of the most famous thinkers of the 20th century, F.A. Hayek, was known for his observation that order can come not only from deliberate actions meant to create it, but also from the spontaneous, uncoordinated actions of many individuals. The latter sort of order is not imposed, but rather emerges. Hayek argued that humans usually find better results in the latter.

For the last ten years, the Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders (FSSO), a project of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, has been holding colloquia exploring various aspects of spontaneous order and its 2012 colloquium, held in February at Hilton Head Island, focused on higher education. It brought together twenty-two individuals who have teaching experience and deep insights into higher education—where it is and where it might go.

Most of the participants submitted papers to be published and the Pope Center has now collected final versions of most of them. Readers who want to dive into this kaleidoscopic assemblage can access the papers on our site. A link to each paper is included at the end of this piece.

Because the papers and discussion were so kaleidoscopic, it’s difficult to put the colloquium into a nutshell, but I’ll do what I can.

As I noted above, the theme of “emerging orders” is derived from Hayek, so it was fitting that the opening presentation was by Duke University professor Bruce Caldwell, whose main area of research has been the work of Hayek. While Hayek wrote little directly pertaining to higher education, he expressed concern over government control of education generally and specifically that a “democratic broadening” of college could actually reduce learning and impede the discovery of knowledge.

Free institutions and unrestrained competition, Hayek argued, are essential to the greatest discovery, use, and sharing of knowledge. The trouble with government involvement in higher education, he apparently perceived, would be that it would lead to rigidity. He probably would not have been surprised by the forced “consensus” among university climate researchers.

Several other papers elaborated on the problem of government as an impediment to the emergence of an optimal market for postsecondary education. David Parento, who works for the innovative StraighterLine—a company that offers students online courses at very low prices—focused his presentation on the obstacles that federal policy puts in the way of those who would challenge the status quo. Students can avail themselves of tuition subsidies, but only if they attend accredited schools. Unfortunately, accreditation is an oligopoly, each agency “funded and staffed by the colleges that are already accredited.”

Parento argued that if competition were unleashed, what would emerge would be a host of new higher education options for students, less costly and more attuned to their needs.

Professor Todd Zywicki found that the current government structure of colleges and universities has a lot to do with their high cost and low quality. Zywicki, who served as a Dartmouth College trustee for several years, notes that boards of trustees tend to be filled with people who don’t want to “rock the boat” and shy away from getting involved with educational quality issues. He relates that when he became a trustee, he sought to create a committee on academic affairs, only to have his idea dismissed on the grounds that the board should not get into such matters because it had “no expertise” in them!

College presidents and the boards of trustees who are very subservient to them are far more concerned about improving the school’s “brand” than they are with educational integrity, Zywicki argues.

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, saw “the advance of the state” as a reason why higher education today is largely dysfunctional. Specifically, the constant ratcheting up of government programs and rhetoric designed to make college available to almost everyone have led to huge expenditures for remedial education. Unfortunately, we are not getting more Americans with augmented “human capital,” but instead lots of young people who graduate with lots of “credentialized resentment” and big debts to boot.

Another Hayekian theme the resounded throughout the colloquium was the prospect for improved higher education to emerge from competition (assuming that it isn’t strangled).

Jeff Sandefer, who founded the Acton MBA program, said that educational entrepreneurs would create radically new approaches to learning. Some of them will involve a return to the apprentice-master system. Others will be similar to the merit badges that kids earn in scouting—proof that the student has acquired a set of skills and can be trusted.

Mark Frazier, president of Openworld, Inc. (a non-profit group that specializes in learning innovations), wrote about the proliferation of educational innovations that hold tremendous promise for transforming college from a high-cost, often ineffective means of transmitting knowledge into a low-cost and very effective means. Among the developments Frazier discussed were online tutors, peer-learning networks, and new credentialing systems such as

Frazier made the argument that rapid, technology-based economic changes “are blowing away a key reason to attend universities.” Instead of spending great amounts of money to obtain degrees that will be of less and less significance in the wired world, students will go directly for education and training that will benefit them. As those changes gather strength, he envisions a “tsunami” engulfing both private and state colleges and universities.

In his paper, Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute also discussed ways in which technology would dramatically transform higher education. One trend he focused on in particular was the “unbundling” of postsecondary education. Instead of following the traditional path of accumulating enough credits from one institution to satisfy its degree requirements, students will increasingly cobble together credits from different schools, doing most of their work online. College will become increasingly a “do it yourself” job.

Not everyone, however, was ready to concede that the traditional college experience is soon to go the way of the slide-rule. John Allison, chairman of the BB&T Foundation, explained how his organization is successfully improving the teaching at many colleges through grants that help free-market-oriented scholars reach more students.

What, if anything, can be done to catalyze more rapid or more beneficial emerging change? Max Borders argued that we can hasten movement toward “adjacent possibles” through a reform agenda that emphasizes transparency mechanisms, disruptive innovations, and more. And philosophy professor James Otteson maintained that tremendous change will spontaneously occur if only the government would stop propping up the current system.

While I have not mentioned every one of the papers, they all contain sharp insights into the problems of and prospects for higher education in America.

Hayek on Spontaneous Orders and on Education” by Bruce Caldwell

Creative Destruction in Higher Education” by James Otteson

The Death of Higher Education in America and the Rise of the 21st Century Entrepreneur” by Jeff Sandefer

Emergent Orders in Higher Education: Resistance, Restoration or Restructuring” by John Allison

Higher Education Accreditation: Market Regulation or Government Regulation?” By Joshua Hall

The Fall of Tax-Funded Universities and Rise of World-Class Alternatives” by Mark Frazier

Universities as Systems: A Sketch for Strategic Reform” by Max Borders

$20 McDonald’s Hamburgers, LEED-ing By Following and How Agency Problems Inhibit the Progress of Higher Learning” by Michael Rizzo

Academia as the World’s Leading Social Problem and What to Do About It” by Michael Strong

Disrupting College: Higher Education at a Crossroads” by Burck Smith and David Parento

The Idea of a University: Constituted” by Stanley Stillman

From Wall Street to College Street: Corruption and Corporatism on Campus” by Todd Zywicki

Serving the New American College Student” by Andrew P. Kelly

Reflections on the Philanthropic Enterprise in Higher Education” by Lenore T. Ealy