A Decade of Reform (Proposals, That Is)

The Pope Center celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2013. Our organization was initially part of the John Locke Foundation, but became independent in 2003.

One of our activities is researching problems in higher education and issuing findings and recommendations in major reports (initially called Inquiry Papers). Here I will review the last ten years’ worth of reports, highlighting one each year. All Pope Center reports are available from an archive on our website.

2003:  What Core Curriculum?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. In 2003, our first year of formal existence, the Pope Center published a major report about “general education” or “core curriculum” at UNC universities. George Leef reported that two schools—Elizabeth City State and Winston-Salem State—offered something close to a traditional core (with required courses in literature and American history) and UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Asheville offered some common educational elements for all students.

Most UNC schools, however, including UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State, did not. Leef urged the UNC Board of Governors to “reject the loose distribution requirements approach that has become prevalent and instead move back to the older idea of a true core curriculum with mandatory courses covering all those fields of knowledge with which educated Americans should be familiar.”

A decade later, Jay Schalin and Jenna Ashley Robinson came to the same conclusion about general education at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Also in 2003, a Pope Center paper by Jon Sanders discussed the potential implications of the Grutter v. Bollinger lawsuit, which dealt with affirmative action at the University of Michigan Law School. Ten years later, that subject, too, still provides fodder for debate.

2004:  A Look at the U.S. News College Rankings

By the 1980s, college had become expensive and parents increasingly wanted to know which colleges were the “best.” In 1983, entrepreneurial editors at U.S. News & World Report stepped into the breach. They sent a survey to college presidents, asking them which schools they thought were the best. That was the genesis of one of the most powerful forces in higher education, the annual U.S. News college rankings.

By 2004, it was clear to George Leef and Michael Lowrey that the U.S. News rankings did not measure quality of education. Rather, as those authors of our study pointed out, U.S. News was ranking schools on reputation and on “inputs” such as faculty salaries and the caliber of incoming freshmen, not on what students actually learned. (That hasn’t changed in the years since.)

An additional Pope Center study, conducted with the National Association of Scholars, looked again at UNC schools’ general education programs along with English and history departments.

2005: Women’s Studies at UNC Schools

After examining women’s studies programs at five North Carolina public universities, Melana Zyla Vickers concluded that they were attracting few majors and little outside financial support. In any year she looked at, none of the schools had more than a dozen graduates with women’s studies as a first major.

Furthermore, the content was biased. One school labeled itself as “feminist” on its home page. “Unlike most other programs in the arts or social sciences, women’s studies programs are free to pick this ideological bias, or ‘ism,’ and shape all their courses around it, in a way that a political science department never could—at least not overtly,” Vickers wrote. “Not one of the programs devotes a single course or even book on a reading list to a dissenting—conservative, free-market, libertarian or other—view of women.”

The Pope Center published three other studies in 2005: one on the governance of the UNC system by Phyllis Palmiero, one by George Leef on whether a college education “pays off,” (“Merely because some of something is beneficial does not prove that more of it will also be beneficial….”), and a critique of free tuition at the UNC School of Science and Math, also by Leef.

2006: The Overselling of Higher Education

In “The Overselling of Higher Education,” George Leef summarized many of the points that he had developed since he joined the Pope Center in 1999. For a lot of people, the value of a college education is overrated. Many students have been lured to college by the idea that only a diploma will enable them to get a good job. But they often become “disengaged” from the enterprise of learning. This forces academic standards to decline, while those students either drop out or get a degree that means little. The cost (to them and to taxpayers) is enormous.

Although Leef was initially criticized for his skepticism, since 2006 his theme has become part of the public discourse about higher education and is virtually undeniable.

Also in 2006, Nan Miller analyzed the changing English department, including those at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State, revealing that “postmodern theories about teaching composition have transformed writing programs,” and not for the better. The Pope Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education concluded that no UNC campus allowed its students genuine free speech.

2007:  “From Christian Gentleman to Bewildered Seeker”

In a paper with that title, Russell Nieli provided a magisterial history of how private colleges and universities have changed in the United States. Most private colleges were created to produce Christian ministers or (at the very least) Christian gentlemen. That single-minded goal has been eliminated. The trouble is that no firm goal has replaced it—just a smorgasbord of educational offerings that bewilder students rather than educate them.

It was a busy year for the Pope Center, with a study of a Duke program on the history of liberty (also written by Nieli) and the discovery (by Amanda Anderson and Jane Shaw) that nearly half North Carolina’s schools (public and private) do not require English majors to study Shakespeare. Jenna Ashley Robinson analyzed how student fees are spent in University of North Carolina schools, finding that they are mostly spent by administrators, not students. And a study of faculty compensation in the UNC system by Jon Sanders revealed that faculty do all right in comparison with their peer institutions.

2008:  Why Not Publish Syllabi?

Often proposed, never refuted, but rarely implemented. That is the history of an important Pope Center proposal. In 2008, Jay Schalin wrote that syllabi (that is, detailed week-by-week descriptions) of courses taught at North Carolia’s public universities should be available to students and the public. Only one UNC school, Fayetteville State University, required such posting. Since Schalin wrote his paper, the state of Texas has required that all syllabi be posted. In spite of some faculty grumbling, the process has gone smoothly. Why can’t that happen at UNC?

The year was another rich one for Pope Center reports. Griggs vs. Duke Power,” by Bryan O’Keefe and Richard Vedder, opened up a new line of analysis of higher education. They suggested that a college diploma is a necessary credential simply because employers open themselves to lawsuits if they use aptitude tests that have a disparate impact on protected minority groups.

The Pope Center also published a scathing critique of North Carolina’s education schools by George Cunningham and a pioneering “student outcomes” report on North Carolina’s law schools by law professors Andrew Morriss and William Henderson.

2009: Why Does College Cost So Much?

Robert E. Martin offered some important answers to that question. The title of his paper, “The Revenue-to-Cost Spiral,” refers to the fact that when universities spend their revenues, they build in additional costs but, unlike profit-making companies, they don’t cut others. So costs keep going up.

And because there is no market for control, as there is among profit-making companies, there is no monitoring by potential buyers who could turn poorly performing universities into winners. It’s hard to buy a university.

Martin explains rising costs without addressing the role of federal funding. Since the paper was written, the argument that federal funding, too, contributes to rising costs has become widely (but not universally) accepted.

The Pope Center also published an overview of academic freedom by Donald Downs and a wise advice book for potential college students by Jenna Ashley Robinson, “College Bound? Make the Right Choices.” Max Borders offered a way for the UNC School of the Arts, often struggling for funds, to become more independent.

2010:  Does Investment in Universities Spur Economic Growth?

It is widely assumed that the more money the government puts into education the more economic growth there will be. But the Pope Center’s influential report by Jay Schalin rejects this presumption. His research discovered that some investment in students’ education and in research contributes to growth, but no one knows how much—and at some point there is probably a negative effect. The claims of a “multiplier” effect are so vague as to be meaningless.

A review of freedom of speech at North Carolina campuses, both public and private, written by Jenna Ashley Robinson using criteria set by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, was also published in 2010. So was one of the first objective studies about how colleges deal with learning disabilities, written by Melana Zyla Vickers.

2011: Do Donors to Universities Have Rights? 

Because universities tend to be left-leaning, conservatives especially—but not exclusively—have reason to distrust the promises universities make about funds they donate. In “Games Universities Play,” Martin Morse Wooster discussed some celebrated cases such as the Robertson family’s gift to Princeton and the Bass family’s gift to Yale—and others not so well-known.

Jay Schalin produced reports on faculty workloads and recommended budget cuts in the UNC system. They received attention and may have influenced legislative and Board of Governors’ decisions.

2012: What’s Wrong with Pell Grants 

In 2012, the Pope Center produced just one report, “Pell Grants: Where Does All the Money Go?” by Jenna Ashley Robinson and Duke Cheston. But it packed a wallop. Robinson and Cheston showed that the Pell grants, originally for very low-income students, are expanding well beyond the initial intent of the program. Today, nearly 60 percent of all students get some form of Pell grant, and the program costs well over $30 billion each year. But the majority of Pell recipients fail to graduate.

The authors recommended that the federal government return to the original aims of the program, focusing on low-income students. They also argued that grantees should meet academic standards, which are virtually nonexistent now. A year and a half after publication, Jenna Robinson testified about Pell grants before the House of Representatives’ subcommittee on higher education.

2013:  A Closer Look at the University System

To provide transparency where it is missing, the Pope Center has begun a periodic review of basic statistics (supported by an online collection of even more data) about North Carolina’s public universities. The report by Jenna Ashley Robinson included such figures as graduation rates, tuition, GPAs and SATs of freshmen, etc., over a ten-year period.

In addition, this past year, Jay Schalin and Jenna Robinson applied a keen eye to the so-called general education program at UNC-Chapel Hill, as mentioned earlier. In a nutshell, the 4700 courses that students can choose from demolish the idea of a “core.” Schalin and Robinson proposed streamlining the choices to about 700 courses that are broad in scope and serious in educational value. We plan to conduct a similar review at NC State.