What I’ve learned at the Pope Center

It’s a pleasure to announce that Jenna A. Robinson, currently director of outreach for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, is about to become our new president. I am retiring, and my last day will be Friday, Feb. 13. I am joining the board of the Pope Center as vice-chairman.

Over the past eight years I have experienced a rich and sometimes tumultuous education about the economics, politics, and culture of today’s campuses. It’s been especially fascinating because higher education has been undergoing serious scrutiny. From the day I read my colleague George Leef’s paper on the “overselling” of higher education to last week’s Washington, D.C., conference on Jay Schalin’s report on academic centers, I have constantly expanded my understanding of the state of higher education.

In this short commentary, I would like to sum up some things I’ve learned, organizing them under “What’s good about higher education,” “What’s bad about higher education,” and “What the Pope Center is doing about it.”

What’s good about higher education 

I’ve often heard George Leef say, “I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard someone say that America’s higher ed system is ‘the envy of the world.’” If you’ve been following the Pope Center’s writing over the past decade or so, you know that we doubt that the world envies us the way it used to, especially when it comes to educating undergraduates (rather than supporting research).

But much is good.

The United States has more colleges, and especially more private colleges, than any other country—more than 2,500 four-year schools and many more two-year colleges. This means that students have choice. True, many colleges are so busy trying to move up to a higher ranking on the U.S. News list by attracting faculty who can obtain research grants that they aren’t always focused on the student. But most still have good teaching faculty, who are indeed at the heart of education.

Thus, a serious student who attends almost any college or university in this country can obtain a good education if he or she knows how to go about it—and wants to do so. Just look at any school’s online catalog. You will see hundreds, even thousands, of educational offerings from Civil War history to French phonetics. (That wealth of choices is why retired adults often go back to school, and I expect to be one of them.)

And the schools themselves are diverse. We have private non-profits, public universities, and profit-making schools; our schools have different emphases (“great books,” engineering, religion, etc.) and different traditions, sports teams, extra-curricular activities, and geographical settings. Unlike the monopolistic public K-12 system, students who truly seek to better themselves through education have much to select from.

What is bad about higher education 

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy for students, especially 18-year-olds, to take advantage of this wealth of resources. There are many obstacles.

  • At most schools, a freshman quickly discovers the close-minded nature of academia. Not only do 62.7 percent of faculty describe themselves as far left or liberal, articles of left-wing faith such as multiculturalism, relativism, and “social justice” permeate classrooms and residence halls (through the offices of “residential life”). Elite colleges such as Brandeis and Scripps disinvite distinguished speakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (author of Infidel) and syndicated columnist George Will simply because some groups dislike what they have to say. This politically correct world discourages analytical thinking and undermines actual learning.
  • Costs of education are way out of line, rising at three times inflation—with tuition rising along with them. About two-thirds of all students incur debt (their average debt is over $28,000 and that figure has been creeping upward). Total college debt is close to $1.2 trillion. Loans keep young people from moving out of their parents’ home, from getting mortgages, and otherwise becoming adults. The government’s efforts to forgive debt if graduates spend time in “public service” will further distort young people’s choices. Many students don’t realize what levels of debt they are incurring because they don’t have to pay anything as long as they are attending school.
  • The level and quality of learning is not what it ought to be. Inflated grades leave a student not knowing whether he or she really has learned much (some end-of-college tests suggest “not much”) and allow students to avoid hard work. Rigor is often missing, except in the mathematical and some, but not all, scientific disciplines.
  • Too many high school graduates feel they must go to college, but those who lack interest or preparation subvert the educational process. They have brought about Murray Sperber’s famous faculty/student nonaggression pact, in which professors give acceptable grades in return for students leaving them alone to do their research.

What the Pope Center is doing about it 

The presence of the Pope Center reflects the view that higher education cannot heal itself. The nation’s postsecondary schools are too embedded in protective rules and habits such as tenure and faculty governance; trustees are weak or not respected; schools lack academic and financial transparency; their support by taxpayers and alumni is unquestioning; the pull of big-time athletics tempts corruption; and overoptimistic assumptions about economic growth keep budgets flowing. Finally, most Americans are caught up in a conventional wisdom about higher education that’s mistaken—i.e., the idea that college graduates get a huge earnings premium. Some do, but many, especially weaker students, do not.

The cure must come from the outside—the diagnosis, the medicine, and even the administration of the medicine. The Pope Center is integrally involved in all three. We offer criticism and positive proposals but also work with faculty, trustees, administrators, and legislators to promote better policies.

We have had some successes, including greater scrutiny of budgets, expansion of the number and nature of speakers on campus, and a new look at colleges’ core curriculum. But we have a long way to go. In this short space I would like to list some of the major recommendations we have made in recent years.

To trustees, governors, and university administration:

For local governments:

  • Shift some funding from public universities to community colleges (which cost the taxpayer much less)
  • Demand financial transparency so the public understands what is being spent and force universities to confront budget reality

For the federal government:

  • Revamp accreditation, which is currently a cartel that perpetuates the status quo except for non-education-related quirks

For the public:

  • Get rid of the notion that everyone has to go to college
  • Don’t blindly accept the claims of “budget cuts,” which are often cuts from anticipated increases.

For alumni:

  • Don’t give money to your school if it violates your standards (read the Pope Center website to find out whether it does)
  • Consider giving to the Pope Center instead

Oops—I offer apologies for ending on what you might think is self-serving note. But if you have read this far it just seems natural to ask for your financial, emotional, and intellectual support. As you can see, the Pope Center’s agenda is full. You can help us accomplish it.

I conclude this piece with a thank you to all the donors and supporters who have helped the Pope Center, especially the John W. Pope Foundation, which has generously supported us from the start. Together, you are helping us bring higher education closer to a system that truly deserves to be the envy of the world.