Five Ways You Can Improve Higher Education

At the Pope Center we spend a lot of time recommending changes to higher education policy. It’s in our name. But there are ways you—as a citizen, parent, student, or employer—can pressure higher education to change.

1. Stop giving money to your alma mater—and tell them why!

If you send money in response to annual appeals, it allows university administrators to spend that money on whatever they choose: instruction, research, athletics, centers, campus speakers, or even administration. The money may support programs or ideas with which you don’t agree, such as a diversity center, social justice courses, or “student life” activities that you might not consider very wholesome.

Or your donation might simply fund waste. For example, take a look at pass-through rates for campus giving. At one school in the UNC system, 71 percent of all donations fund the campus giving office. If you considered donating to a charity, you would never choose one with that kind of wasteful spending. You should apply the same standards when giving to a university.

If you do give to your alma mater and try to direct your gift to a particular cause, the university may not abide by your wishes. Universities have a poor track record of respecting donor intent.

Two examples illustrate this. In 1992, Mattie Kelly gave her 13-acre waterfront homestead to Okaloosa-Walton Community College in Destin, Florida. Kelly expected the land to be the home of a cultural and environmental institute. Instead, the college sold the land to a housing developer. Also, in 2006, Tulane University eliminated its women’s affiliate, Newcomb College, and took over Newcomb’s endowment. Josephine Louise Newcomb, who donated $3 million to the women’s college more than 100 years ago, expected her money to be used for a women’s college. Her heirs sued Tulane, but lost in state court.

2. Support a school that takes no federal money.

Several schools take no money from the federal government. That means they accept no grants, no student loans, no funding whatsoever from Uncle Sam. You’ve probably heard of Hillsdale College and Grove City College, but Pensacola Christian College, Patrick Henry College, Christendom College, New Saint Andrews College, and Wyoming Catholic also operate independently.

This allows the schools to spend their money on instruction instead of administration. (Federal compliance costs thousands of dollars per student, per year.) It also allows schools to ignore federal mandates that run counter to both good practices and traditional values. (They can ignore the “Dear Colleague” letter, for example, which demands that universities trample the due process of students accused of sexual assault.)

You can support a school like Hillsdale in two ways—either send them a check or encourage your children, grandchildren, and friends to attend.

3. Support a center or institute that focuses on ideas that are important to you.

Around the country, there are many privately funded academic centers that preserve and promote the knowledge and perspectives that are disappearing from the academy, with an emphasis on undergraduate education. The Pope Center’s director of state policy analysis wrote a report on the topic early last year called “Renewal in the University.”

Many of these academic centers engage in the same type of work that occurs across the broader university, but without the activist leanings that are present in so many schools today. They: Engage in research; sponsor speakers and debate series; support undergraduate fellowships and services; distribute books; partner with local communities; and (of course) offer classes to undergraduate and graduate students.

4. If you are an employer or hiring manager, stop insisting on a degree when making hiring decisions.

Here’s why: Many students don’t actually learn much. In their 2011 book Academically Adrift, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found, “with a large sample of more than 2,300 students, we observe no statistically significant gains [after two years] in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills for at least 45 percent of the students in our study.”

Executives who employ recent college graduates can confirm that finding. In a 2014 poll by Hart Research Associates, business leaders said that many new graduates are not “well-prepared” for the workforce. The poll results revealed that many employers believe that the majority of graduates are deficient in terms of their ethical judgment and decision-making, oral communication, statistics skills, critical thinking, and creativity.

Instead of assuming that a B.A. or B.S. is a guarantee of competence, ask for evidence of a person’s grit, intelligence, and work ethic. For example, ask for a portfolio; carefully read the cover letter; and get recommendations from Scout Masters, youth group leaders, or former bosses. Yes, as an employer, the hiring process will be a little more onerous, but you’ll end up with employees who are more likely to have proven worth instead of just a piece of paper.

5. Stop relying on U.S. News and World Report to evaluate colleges and universities. 

This resource bases its ratings on measures that don’t actually affect student learning. Instead it includes the opinions of administrators at peer institutions; how well faculty are paid; and how selective the student body is. That last measure, of course, invites universities to game the system. They issue invitations to apply to far more students than they can actually admit, artificially inflating their “selectivity” numbers.

Other resources are much more helpful for students and parents, including the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Choosing the Right College, FIRE’s free speech ratings, and the Brookings Institute’s new value-added assessment of graduate salaries.

You can also take a look at ACTA’s “What Will They Learn” website, which assesses universities’ general education curricula. It grades universities from “A” to “F” based on whether students are required to take core courses like math, science, literature, and American history.

Citizens, parents, and students can make a difference to the future of higher education. Together, you can change the market with your actions and contributions.

(Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from remarks made at the Civitas Institute’s Conservative Leadership Conference on March 4, 2016.)