Our Hopes for Higher Ed Reform in 2020

As priorities shift in the minds of higher education leaders and students, it’s important to take stock of recent changes on the local and national levels. At the Martin Center, we have our eyes on some reforms at the top of our list for 2020:

Jenna A. Robinson, President

More Colleges Experimenting with Income Share Agreements

Student debt poses a problem for many young people, especially those who are underemployed or unemployed after leaving college. A better alternative is Income Share Agreements (ISA). ISAs are contracts between students and their schools. The university pays for the student’s education and the student, after graduation, agrees to repay the university with a certain percentage of his or her income for a pre-determined number of years after graduation.

ISAs have several advantages over traditional debt. First, students know exactly how long it will take to “pay off” their debt since that’s part of the agreement from the beginning. Also, students who don’t earn very much money in their first jobs won’t be crushed by sky-high loan repayments. And there’s also no interest, which means that the balance won’t grow over time.

Most importantly, ISAs align the interests of students and schools because the school recoups more of its investment from students who graduate and find lucrative employment. Universities and students both have a financial stake in student success.

Purdue University was the first four-year school to offer ISAs. It began its “Back a Boiler” plan in 2016. Other schools that offer ISAs include Colorado Mountain College, Allan Hancock College in California, Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania, Clarkson University in New York, Norwich University in Vermont, and Messiah College in Pennsylvania.

In 2020, I’d like to see that list grow. ISAs are a powerful tool to prevent the worst consequences of excessive student borrowing.

More Due Process Protections for Students

Most students who face disciplinary actions on college campuses are treated as guilty until proven innocent. And the process for determining guilt is fraught with problems. Campus hearings often lack the kinds of procedural safeguards and basic fact-finding mechanisms that exist elsewhere in society.

In 2017, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) graded universities’ disciplinary proceedings. They found, “49 out of the 53 universities reviewed receive a grade of D or F from FIRE for at least one disciplinary policy, meaning that they fully provide no more than 4 of the 10 elements that FIRE considers critical to a fair procedure.”

Late last year, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights proposed new federal regulations that would require schools to provide many important procedural safeguards. But those regulations haven’t been finalized—and could be changed by future administrations. States should act to enshrine due process on public university campuses.

I hoped to see legislative action on this topic in 2019, but there has been little activity. Last year at this time, I wrote:

States should remedy this problem—at least at public colleges and universities—by adopting legislation that guarantees student defendants the right to counsel, requires parties to make good-faith efforts to exchange evidence, and allows students and their advocates to make opening and closing statements, and to present and question witnesses.

States should also ensure that accused students are given adequate notice of adjudication processes, including details of the allegations. Most importantly, states should demand that universities use “clear and convincing evidence” as the standard of proof of responsibility for proving sexual misconduct.

For the many students facing university disciplinary proceedings, the Education Department has been too slow to act. States should move forward on this issue.


Jay Schalin, Director of Policy Analysis

Leaders Should Start to Lead

One thing I’d like to see for the New Year is for the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to grow a spine and become a serious force for reform. I’m not holding my breath on this one; the cluelessness exhibited by that body over the last year or so has been breath-taking.

This lack of awareness was on full display in the Silent Sam debacle, in which they tried to avoid criticism and please all the various factions when no such compromise position existed.

There was clearly only one appropriate move: to keep the statue on the campus and to come down hard on anybody who committed an illegal act (meaning expulsion for students, firing for staff, and full prosecution for outsiders).

Instead of facing up to the actual problem of mob rule, the board sought some sort of sweet spot that would appease the radicals on both the left and right while ignoring the 65 percent of the population who wanted the statue restored. So how is that working out for them? Apparently not so well; their critics are more intense than ever and the credibility of the board is at a low.

The board may try to excuse their sorry solution by claiming it “allows the University to move forward and focus on its core mission of educating students.” But they cast aside the real opportunity for education. Long after the classroom quotations and equations are forgotten, the real lessons offered by the sad saga of Silent Sam will remain, including:

  • When you don’t get your way through ordinary processes, resort to mob violence.
  • Authorities are essentially cowards who will back down when threatened with adverse publicity.
  • Respectful negotiation, compromise, and trying to understand other perspectives are for losers. The loudest voices get their way.

So, it would be nice if the board were to regard Silent Sam as a teachable moment for themselves, realize that appeasement is no way to govern, and take a proactive approach to reform a system that is losing its way.

Institution-Building May Be the Last Resort

My other wish is predicated upon the unlikelihood that we will see any serious reform in higher education. Given that unfortunate state of affairs, I would like to see a flowering of alternative institutions that will uphold standards and teach the best-known truths rather than what is fashionable or politically expedient. They can be entirely new colleges, or they can be centers, institutes, and programs that maintain some degree of independence as part of existing campuses.

Over the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of such centers. Many of them continue to thrive and influence their campuses. However, others are starting to suffer from attempts to subvert them, limit their ability to disrupt the academic zeitgeist, and drive them off-campus. One pernicious development is the “UnKoch my Campus” campaign, which attempts to destroy any centers that take money from the Koch Foundation.

(Although, maybe that’s not the worst idea ever. Maybe there should be a new organization called “UnSoros My Campus.”)

On the other hand, new college start-ups with traditional, Christian, conservative or unique emphases have been few and far between. A couple of them were founded in North Carolina recently, but they are the exceptions. One reason is the lack of awareness of the need to for alternate institutions. Prosperous people continue to give big donations to their alma maters that are then used to undo everything these same donors hold dear. Talented students still want to attend the most prestigious schools rather than seek alternatives that may provide a better education.

And, even when donors do look for alternative ways to give, their money goes to well-funded schools such as Hillsdale College or Liberty University.

I’m hoping these established patterns will change and we will start to see more start-ups of both colleges and centers. It may be that the only way to have intellectual diversity is to have institutional diversity.


George Leef, Director of Research

How About a National Conversation on Diversity?

As president, Bill Clinton declared that America needed a “national conversation” on race. We never had much of a real conversation, however, but rather we suffered a one-sided, divisive harangue from progressives.

Although that “conversation” didn’t work out, we could use a true conversation in the coming year on the related subject of diversity.

Ever since the mania for diversity, especially in academia, arose in the 1970s, we have had a torrent of pro-diversity claims from advocates of group balancing to achieve greater “fairness.” We have heard over and over that diversity creates vital educational benefits, heals racial misunderstandings, prepares Americans for a diverse world, and so forth. Occasionally, those assertions are questioned, but those who dare to do so are shouted down (figurative, and sometimes literally) by diversity advocates who never doubt their own beliefs.

A true national conversation on diversity would mean that Americans get the chance to hear the arguments that diversity doesn’t bring educational benefits (consider, e.g., Professor Charles Geshekter’s rebuttal to a so-typical book entitled An Inclusive Academy) and that the obsession with hiring people from “underrepresented” groups is a serious impediment to academic excellence (as Heather Mac Donald demonstrates in her recent book The Diversity Delusion.).

In short, America needs a conversation in which the purported benefits of choosing people based on their ancestry are weighed against the costs of doing so. No claim should be accepted or rejected out of hand but evaluated based on evidence.

There is a huge obstacle to such a conversation, however. The pro-diversity people have gotten their way and don’t care for challenges. Almost no higher education leader has come forth to say, “While I have supported diversity efforts, there are sound reasons to doubt that they’ve had the rosy effects I envisioned. People who criticize diversity admissions and programs are not evil, and they make some strong arguments.”

Evidence against the diversity obsession is mounting. What we need now is for a prominent academic leader to say that it’s time to consider stopping it.

The Tide Has Turned Against “Woke” College Officials

For years, college officials imbued with the so-called Progressive worldview—they see themselves as “woke” to all of America’s injustices—assumed that they could act in accordance with their beliefs and never face any adverse consequences. But it now seems that the tide has turned. No longer can they assume that they’re immune from legal repercussions when they mistreat students or others in the community.

The main reason for this change is our jury system. It turns out that ordinary Americans who serve on juries have a different sense of right and wrong than do the typical college officials.

The great case that exemplifies this change is the Oberlin College lawsuit brought by the owners of Gibson’s Bakery. After zealous students itching for a protest turned a shoplifting incident into a supposedly racist attack by privileged whites against a black student, college officials encouraged and took part in the campaign to disparage the Gibson family and harm their business. They never considered pulling back from the attack on the Gibsons, and after they filed suit against the school, officials refused to settle. They were certain they were right and that the jury would agree.

That was a very costly mistake. The jury looked at evidence rather than emotional progressive rhetoric and found the college liable for over $11 million in actual damages and three times that amount in punitive damages. (I wrote about the case here.)

And in a case involving Boston College, the jury awarded the plaintiff student more than $100,000 because the school’s Title IX misconduct procedures were so stacked against accused students.

Juries are famous for “sending a message” to defendants whose practices they find abhorrent. In the past, those defendants have usually been businesses, but now colleges have much to worry about. Having to write checks to people they have wronged probably won’t change their views, but it will change their behavior.


Anthony Hennen, Managing Editor

Pay More Attention to Non-Elite Colleges

Higher ed news is dominated by an obsession with Harvard, Yale, and other elite schools. Even when public colleges gain the spotlight, they’re usually schools like the University of Michigan, University of North Carolina, or another state flagship. While those schools matter and have an outsized influence in American culture, higher ed journalism needs to pay more attention to public regional colleges and smaller state schools. Otherwise, the public’s understanding of college gets distorted.

Most students go to college because they want a good job. They’re also older than the public thinks (26 years old) and only a slight majority attend school full-time. About 40 percent of students attend a four-year school, according to New America, while about 38 percent of students enroll in a two-year school. As online education rises and older Americans return to school to finish a degree or earn a short-term credential, the average student looks less like a 20-year-old living in a dorm.

With an older student population looking to get a job credential, the public needs to conceive of higher ed as a diversified field of schools with different missions. Rankings can obscure that by narrowing the field to one “ideal” type of college. But looking at public regional schools and community colleges gives a better impression of life for the average college student. Many college students are working as they pursue a degree, most do not expect to continue on to graduate school. More of the debates about colleges need to focus on those students and cater to their issues rather than the loud and well-connected minority who attend elite schools.

More Skepticism of the ‘College as an Economic Engine’ Myth

Colleges love to tout their economic impact on the local economy. They make large claims about how economic growth and research would crash without their activity. However, when digging into the numbers for an individual school, the grandiose pronouncements sound more like myth than reality.

Yet, journalists, politicians, and others accept the numbers as fact. In 2020, collegiate “economic impact studies” could use a great deal more skepticism. Colleges can add to local economies by giving their graduates a strong education, but top officials or consultants tend to count economic activity that would happen anyway. They also rarely account for how the money would be used if not given to the college.

Though students attend college to get a job, colleges don’t need to make a profit or grow the economy. They have different missions focused on pursuing truth or preparing students to be good citizens. When they make huge economic claims, though, it sends a mixed message. They appear focused on the economic logic of life while looking less than truthful. If colleges want to make claims about economic productivity, then by all means. But they need to look similar to an academic study, not a press release. And journalists and policymakers need to stop giving them a benefit of the doubt.


Shannon Watkins, Senior Writer

Make Job Earnings a Metric of Community College Success

In October, I wrote about how community college success in North Carolina is too narrowly defined. Colleges and policymakers tend to measure academic achievement by whether or not students complete a credential. Those who don’t leave with a piece of paper are often considered failures and are known as “non-completers.”

But there’s reason to believe that some “non-completers” are actually very successful in the workforce. That’s because community colleges serve a wide variety of purposes—and only some of those purposes include earning a credential. A student might attend community college to build their skill-set mid-career, to fill small gaps in their knowledge, or to (affordably) fulfill requirements for a degree program at a four-year institution.

Nevertheless, the success of community college non-completers are often overlooked by higher education leaders. Part of the reason non-completers are ignored is due to pressure from the state legislature. The North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) is largely evaluated by the state in terms of how many credentials it grants—not by other factors such as students’ increase in job earnings.

Interestingly, in 2015 the NCCCS recommended that the state legislature expand its definition of community college success by adding an “earnings gain” performance measure. Unfortunately, the legislature did not accept the recommendation. As a result, productive non-completers continue to be overlooked in the system’s annual performance report.

But, given the growing awareness of the success of community college non-completers, it might be an opportune time for the community college system to revisit this issue with the legislature. Hopefully in 2020, the North Carolina state legislature will recognize that credentialization isn’t the only sign of accomplishment.

UNC System Needs to Improve Reporting on Institutional Neutrality

In 2017, the North Carolina’s Campus Free Speech Act went into law—protecting the free speech rights of students, faculty, and staff across the state’s public colleges and universities. The law requires that a subcommittee of the UNC system Board of Governors produce an annual report outlining any barriers to or disruptions of free expression.

Unfortunately, there seems to be some confusion about an aspect of the law: institutional neutrality. Institutional neutrality is a principle that colleges and universities shouldn’t take a stand one way or another on political or polarizing issues. It is meant to create an atmosphere on campus where students and scholars do not feel pressured to conform to the political beliefs of administrators and faculty.

The confusion regarding institutional neutrality seems to stem from a provision of the free speech bill that was struck before its final passage into law. The part of the bill that was eliminated before it was voted into law is the following:

The constituent institutions shall strive to remain neutral, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day.

The author of the model legislation on which North Carolina’s free speech law is based explains:

Because one of the original provisions of the bill covering institutional neutrality was struck before final passage, an impression has developed that the law has been significantly weakened in that respect. That is not so. The Act covers all aspects of institutional neutrality, and the key passages of the original proposal were enacted.

Specifically, the law still requires the BOG to include the following in its annual report:

A description of substantial difficulties, controversies, or successes in maintaining a posture of administrative and institutional neutrality with regard to political or social issues.

Yet, in both of its reports from 2018 and 2019, the Board of Governors’ Committee on Free Expression failed to mention any concrete violations against institutional neutrality—violations that certainly exist. For the 2020 report, members of the Committee on Free Expression should recognize their responsibility to report on any instances where UNC system schools fail to uphold institutional neutrality.