Reforms We Want in 2024

The Martin Center staff share our hopes for the new year.

Each year, the staff of the Martin Center share our higher-ed-reform dreams for the coming year. Will all of our wishes come true? Probably not. Nevertheless, we offer them here in a spirit of optimism, for the reader’s enjoyment and edification.

Bring Back Standardized Testing

When university campuses shuttered in response to COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, other parts of the higher-education complex quickly followed suit. Most notable was the so-called “suspension” of standardized testing. At the time, it seemed to make sense. Students weren’t allowed to gather in groups at testing centers, and student performance, some claimed, wouldn’t be predictive anyway because of the significant education disruption.

That disruption, which we once thought would last just a few weeks, has continued to affect all aspects of education. K-12 students are still behind on reading and math, with fewer than expected performing at grade level. Lax grading policies instituted during the pandemic are still in place, allowing students to disregard deadlines or turn in sub-standard schoolwork. Daniel Buck detailed the post-Covid failures of K-12 education here.

Standardized tests are the only reliable, predictive tool with which to meaningfully compare student applicants.These changes in K-12 education mean that standardized testing is more important than ever. Yet most universities never reinstated testing even after the pandemic was long over. The UNC Board of Governors voted in early 2022 to extend its testing “waiver” for students applying for admission through the fall of 2024. Universities nationwide have scrapped the test altogether, becoming permanently “test-optional.” The University of California “no longer considers SAT or ACT test scores when making admissions decisions or awarding scholarships.”

This is a grave mistake. Inflated grades and poor K-12 performance leave standardized tests as the only reliable, predictive tool with which to meaningfully compare student applicants. Using the tests is essential to a fair admissions process. At competitive schools, it will ensure that only the most qualified students are admitted. At uncompetitive universities, testing will ensure that students are admitted only if they are truly ready for college-level work.

It’s well past time for schools to restore standardized testing to the admissions process.

-Jenna A. Robinson, President

Rebuke the Mob

College leaders must learn how to deal with controversial issues, campus disruptions, and demands from students. They have been poor at these things for decades, but the terrible events of October 7 and their aftermath underscore the need for drastic change.

Let’s begin with student demands. In two recent instances, groups at Harvard and Columbia issued demands to school officials. At Harvard, as Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn relates, students insisted that the school divest from any investments that might relate to Israel’s “occupation” of Palestine and that it reinstate a proctor who participated in mob action against Jewish students. At Columbia, as we read here, students demanded a boycott of Israel and the establishment of a Center for Palestinian Legal Studies.

Neither Harvard nor Columbia has capitulated to these student demands, but cowering in silence is not the right approach. Nor, of course, should there be any “dialogue” over demands. University administrators across the U.S. should announce to all students at the beginning of each year that they will not respond to any politicized demands and say why: because students do not have the maturity to evaluate situations and consider the pros and cons of any course of action.

Administrators should announce at the beginning of each year that they will not respond to any politicized demands.Head students off by politely informing them that they are there to learn, not to make decisions.

Second, for some reason it has become standard practice for college leaders to issue statements concerning just about any controversial issue: the Hamas attack, the death of George Floyd, the election of Trump, etc. Such announcements inevitably leave many people upset. Administrators should break that habit by announcing that schools will make announcements only on matters pertaining to education there. This sensible policy is exactly what the University of Chicago’s Kalven Principles stand for.

Recently, Northwestern University law professor John O. McGinnis made the case for the Kalven Principles, writing, “The university advances its chief function by not taking positions. Its comparative advantage lies in the ability to diffuse knowledge, not to draw political lines.”

College leaders should just say “no” to making statements about controversies outside of the school. When, inevitably, people want to know what the school president has to say about some occurrence, he or she should reply, “As we said back in September, we are no longer making such statements.”

Finally, what about disruptive students? Years of laxity in dealing with their inappropriate behavior has given militant students the idea that they can get away with anything. Administrators need to snap out of their stupor and strictly enforce the rules against all kinds of disruption. The model here is former Notre Dame president Father Theodore Hesburgh, who, in 1969, when the nation’s campuses were rocked with protests over the war in Vietnam, wrote a letter saying, “Anyone or any group that substitutes force for rational persuasion will be given 15 minutes of meditation to cease and desist.” Those who did not do so would face suspension or expulsion. College officials who want a peaceful campus where people use only persuasion to make their points should follow that example.

Our campuses have become places of strife and intolerance. College officials have only themselves to blame. If they want to reclaim their educational integrity, they should start with the three steps above.

-George Leef, Director of External Relations

Reform General Education

For those concerned about what students are learning in college, general-education curricula present a promising opportunity for reform. Since all students regardless of major have to take general-education coursework, reforming these programs will benefit the majority of students on campus. On the individual level, the time spent fulfilling these requirements isn’t negligible: General education consists of about 30 percent of a student’s entire college education.

Perhaps the most important task in designing general-education curricula is deciding which knowledge is essential for students to learn.

Deciding which knowledge is essential inevitably involves consideration of values.The suggestion that some knowledge is essential (and therefore that some is not), however, is highly contentious. Deciding which knowledge is essential inevitably involves consideration of values. It is much easier for college administrators to claim supposed neutrality than to opine on whether the Western and American traditions are to be treasured, abhorred, or ignored. Instead, their approach to general education tends to be skills-focused and content-neutral. What students specifically study isn’t seen as terribly important, as long as they develop highly valuable generic skills such as “critical thinking.”

While college administrators are safely tucked away in their agnosticism, current general-education programs wreak havoc on students. With little to no direction about what is important to know, undergraduates are free to select from a menu of course options based on their whims and passing interests. The design of general-education curricula at most universities makes it difficult not to do so: How should the average freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill decide which history course to take when presented with nearly 500 options?

Yes, general education should teach students foundational skills such as good writing, logical thinking, and ethical reasoning. But those skills are not developed in a content-neutral vacuum. What students study matters because, from a cognitive standpoint, learning occurs when related facts build upon each other. A random sampling of courses that have little to do with each other, or diving too deeply into a narrow specialty, will not give students the crucial building blocks of knowledge that will make them good general thinkers.

Specific knowledge—and the ideas it contains—matters. General education is where students should not only gain a sophisticated understanding of the American republic in which they live but also come to appreciate the values and traditions that inform their very way of life. State-level reform of general-education curricula, requiring students to learn about their civic heritage, isn’t only permissible, it is necessary.

-Shannon Watkins, Research Associate

Bring Back Academic Rigor

As the Martin Center recently covered, multiple surveys have come out this year raising the question, “Are college graduates prepared for the workforce?” Employees and employers alike are uncertain that college is adequately preparing students for career success. One recent survey found that 46 percent of employees feel that higher education failed to prepare them for their current jobs; 61 percent reported that their work experience had offered better preparation.

Since the ultimate goal of most higher-ed institutions these days is to prepare students to enter the workforce upon graduation, these concerns are prudent. If college isn’t offering adequate preparation, one wonders if it is necessary—especially when employees feel that prior work experience is more beneficial.

If college isn’t offering adequate preparation for post-graduation life, one wonders if it is necessary.In the coming year, perhaps colleges (and students) could consider what preparations would be most beneficial for career success. Higher education has a unique opportunity to train students, particularly in the areas of self-discipline and responsibility. This happens only, however, when academic standards remain high and there is pressure to perform. Then, students gain benefits beyond a good letter grade.

Having to show up for class on time (or face a penalty of some sort) prepares students for the expectation and responsibility that they will show up on time to work. Being expected to present their best work in class prepares students for future work projects and helps them to know what quality of work will be generally expected of them. Helping students find internships that align well with their desired careers or encouraging students to work jobs throughout their schooling might also improve their future career success.

I hope that 2024 will see the return of academic rigor: colleges holding students to a higher standard and thus better preparing them for workplace success. In doing so, colleges can help ensure that students’ and employers’ confidence will improve.

-Ashlynn Warta, State Reporter

Expand the Racial-Preferences-in-Admissions Ban

The logic of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard (2023) is clear, compelling, and in line with the best American traditions of colorblindness and justice. “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.” “Our constitutional history does not tolerate” reducing a person’s identity to “the color of [his] skin.”

To read Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion now is to remember anew the extent to which racial preferences in admissions violate the letter and spirit of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Since that is plainly the case, the time has come to follow the decision’s reasoning to its natural conclusion.

The Court punted on whether West Point et al. may discriminate against applicants of disfavored races.Tucked into the chief justice’s opinion is a footnote that explicitly limits the decision’s reach while seeming to invite further litigation: Because “no military academy is a party to these cases,” the majority opinion “does not [apply to them], in light of the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.”

Put simply, the Court punted on the question of whether West Point et al. may continue to discriminate against applicants of disfavored races in order to give a leg up to applicants of favored ones. For those keeping score at home, the term for this kind of arrangement is bigotry.

Unsurprisingly, Students for Fair Admissions wasted little time before suing to build on its June victory. Filed in the Southern District of New York, SFFA v. West Point asks the judiciary to extend the racial-preferences prohibition to the United States Military Academy and its fellow service schools. According to the complaint, West Point’s director of admissions “brags that race is wholly determinative for hundreds if not thousands of applicants.” As such, the academy’s admissions policy “should be declared unlawful and enjoined.”

Though 2024 is unlikely to see the matter concluded, higher-ed reformers should hope for a series of favorable rulings as the case makes its inevitable way to the Supreme Court. We ought, in other words, to cheer for admissions policies based on merit. America’s enemies will be rooting for the opposite.

-Graham Hillard, Editor