Restoring Merit to Higher Education: An Entrepreneurial Approach

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

In his 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron,” author Kurt Vonnegut mused about a future in which equality of outcomes is not only required, but enforced. Equity was achieved by “handicapping” the talents of individuals in various absurd ways. In an eerie echo to Vonnegut, higher education in the U.S. is trending in this direction.

Halfway to 2081, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies (especially the equity component) are resulting in a gradual “handicapping” of degrees, programs, and courses. Examples include dilution of the mathematics curriculum, and adulteration of history and literature. This trend is accompanied by increasing indoctrination—what to think, not how to think—and the curtailment of speech on campus.

The consumer of undergraduate education enjoys a wide selection of DEI-influenced institutions, but a dwindling supply of alternatives. I propose that one important pathway to a restoration of “school choice” in higher education is to establish and successfully operate new colleges that prioritize merit over equity. DEI’s current dominance has supplanted many merit-based programs and policies, and weakened other traditional priorities (e.g., academic freedom and equality of opportunity), leaving a gap in the marketplace–an underserved market segment comprising academics, parents, students, and donors seeking a “non-DEI” education. This creates an opportunity for educational entrepreneurs to launch new institutions that serve this abandoned market segment.

What Business Are We In? 

College is a marketplace in which participants (students) purchase one or more options for their future success. For students whose primary motivation is economic (career acceleration), the value proposition of undergraduate education can be described as the offering of one or more options to enter a chosen career at an advanced level, i.e., a higher level than one would have otherwise entered the workplace. Do DEI-focused colleges in the U.S. deliver such options? In many cases, yes, but the current emphasis on DEI in general, and its “equity” component in particular, may not adequately prepare students for the workforce.

The door is open for competing institutions that can deliver the product (valuable options) more effectively and efficiently. They can do so either by replacing “handicapped” offerings (and associated indoctrination) with those of higher quality, or by eliminating lower-value offerings altogether, thereby reducing the time and opportunity cost of college attendance.

Why emphasize the creation of new institutions? In the name of efficiency, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to pursue desired reforms within existing institutions? Clearly, there are multiple strategies available to the entrepreneur:

1) Work within existing colleges and universities

  • a) Strengthen and expand institutions that have avoided DEI-based policies
  • b) Work to reform existing DEI-influenced departments and programs

2) “Design around” the current system of higher education

  • a) Utilize technology to create virtual campuses, degrees, programs
  • b) Establish new colleges and universities

I suggest that while success in restoring a culture of merit to higher education should logically include action on all fronts, the founding and nurturing of alternative colleges plays a particularly critical role in the short, medium, and long term.

In the short-term, newly established entities (along with virtual campuses) have greater flexibility to accelerate reform than other alternatives. The role played by existing institutions that have avoided DEI is vital, but there are too few of them to have the desired impact.

In the medium-term, gains in market share by new colleges and universities may incentivize existing institutions to implement internal reforms. This represents the least disruptive solution in the struggle to restore school choice in higher education. At a macro level, it would be much more efficient, in terms of cost, time, and effort, to reform a meaningful segment of the existing stock rather than duplicate it.

In the absence of a long-term commitment to these start-up institutions, any short- or medium-term gains will be at risk of erosion. Due to the ubiquitous influence of DEI in academia, competitive pressure must be sustained to produce lasting reform. Then, let competition in the marketplace of ideas decide the future demand for DEI vs. non-DEI programs.

Obviously, the establishment of successful new institutions, like all new ventures, requires resources, effective strategies, and time. Where should educational entrepreneurs begin?

First, it may be helpful to imagine what a successful start-up might look like, and why.

What Departments and Programs to Offer? To Avoid? 

The constraints imposed by limited financial resources (a reasonable assumption for most start-up ventures) have critical implications for the curriculum, as well as the “look-and-feel” of the campus itself. Offerings must be broad enough to be attractive to prospective students (i.e., provide a sufficient range of valuable options), but narrow enough to fit into tight budgets. Therefore, all suggestions below assume a framework that minimizes all costs other than direct faculty salaries and benefits. This means the reduction of the following:

  • Real property investments
  • Laboratories and related equipment
  • Administrative salaries and expenses

Such a framework will allow the new institution to focus its financial resources on the acquisition of quality faculty. Furthermore, departments and programs would initially be limited to those that create high-quality options for students at the lowest cost, which for this hypothetical campus, fall in the areas of literacy and numeracy. These two areas are broadly accepted as critical not only for direct career entry, but also for many prospective graduate programs; for example, refer to the topics covered by the LSAT and the GMAT.

But what specific programs should be offered under these two umbrellas?

Historically, instruction in the university began with the Trivium: Grammar, Logic (or Dialectic), and Rhetoric, subject areas that generally fall under the heading of literacy. In her 1947 essay and presentation at Oxford, appropriately entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” author Dorothy Sayers described the Trivium as follows:

… the first thing we notice is that two at any rate of these “subjects” are not what we should call “subjects” at all: they are only methods of dealing with subjects. Grammar, indeed, is a “subject” in the sense that it does mean definitively learning a language… But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning…

… “Subjects” of some kind there must be, of course. One cannot learn the theory of grammar without learning an actual language, or learn to argue and orate without speaking about something in particular.

Sayers argued for an educational foundation based on teaching pupils how to think (via the Trivium) that was contemporaneous with the introductory “subjects” that pupils first learned, and preceded the “subjects” containing more substantive and advanced content. Students attending our start-up institution, of course, will be immediately immersed in more advanced content. Since entering students will likely not have fully internalized these tools, our college should consider embedding the concepts of the Trivium across all departments and programs. I suggest that an explicit curriculum-wide focus on “the lost tools of learning” would not only be beneficial to students, but also serve to differentiate the start-up from its competitors, potentially increasing the likelihood of success.

Valuable career options could be offered at a relatively low cost due to the reduction or elimination of many expensive departments and properties.

Regarding specific “subjects” to be offered, that must be left to each new institution to determine. The good news: our entrepreneur will likely find that the literacy component of the curriculum in the new college can be appropriately populated with many “subjects” at a relatively low cost. History, literature, philosophy, politics, and economics are all likely candidates (there are doubtless many others), and would meet our key constraint: that programs be inexpensive in terms of real estate, laboratories, equipment, and other pricey investments.

What about numeracy? Historically, such offerings fell under the Quadrivium, consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Today, of course, arithmetic and geometry are subsumed under a broader and deeper mathematics department, and astronomy is likewise a small piece of a very large (and expensive!) pie that includes the natural sciences and engineering. What can the budget-constrained entrepreneur accomplish here?

More good news: mathematics, the “queen of the sciences,” provides a critical foundation for many STEM programs, and is a bargain. A 2014 paper reviewing educational developments in Latin America asserted: “Mathematics education and research are effective tools for international scientific development because, within the context of science, mathematics is inexpensive and ubiquitous [emphasis added].”

A necessary, if not quite sufficient, foundation for a viable STEM curriculum in this hypothetical college therefore begins with a strong math department, which, without expensive non-faculty investments, could offer degrees such as pure math, applied math, statistics, and decision theory, to name a few.

To provide important content and context, carefully designed courses, for example, physics (sans expensive labs and equipment), could be added without “breaking the bank.” Graduates with a strong foundation in mathematics, along with the previously discussed literacy component, would be prepared for direct career entry in numerous fields, as well as many graduate programs.

To summarize, a high-quality start-up college might rest on a focused foundation of numeracy and literacy, contingent primarily on the acquisition of high-quality faculty. Valuable career options could be offered at a relatively low cost due to the reduction or elimination of many expensive departments and properties. And another layer of costs would be avoided by de-emphasizing DEI policies and related staff expenses; academic freedom and merit are much cheaper to administer.

However, any modern college would be remiss if it ignored DEI entirely. It would be like sending an uninformed hiker into a forest filled with carnivores. This could be remedied with a short, non-credit course supplying students with important defensive DEI concepts. Currently, many students likely graduate from mainstream colleges and universities with little, if any, defense against the “language” of DEI—only further underscoring the need for alternative institutions.

If new colleges and universities are to bloom, willing entrepreneurs need to come to the drawing board with a clear vision and strategy that prioritizes high-quality curricular content at a low cost. To aid their efforts, I recommend they consult the literature on innovation management and entrepreneurship for some potentially useful concepts. I will review and summarize relevant features of that literature in my next article.

David C. Dufendach is a former partner of Grant Thornton LLP, where he specialized in the valuation of businesses, intellectual property, intangible assets, and complex securities. He has written many articles and spoken at numerous national and international conferences on complex valuation topics. He was an adjunct in the graduate business school of Seattle University, holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. from the University of Washington.