Finally, a Chance to Start Getting Higher Ed Right

The nation has caught on to college misbehavior. Now is the time for reform.

“Finally.” It’s a word those who’ve spent years sounding the alarm about the plight of higher education have been saying a lot lately. Finally, the thought-policing and groupthink have become undeniable. Finally, the cost of toxic dogmas is coming clear. Finally, the bloat and cartel-like behavior is being seen for what it is.

The train-wreck congressional testimony by the leaders of some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, the blatant and unrepentant campus antisemitism on display, and the laughably hypocritical double standards applied to speech have illustrated the problems in higher education, even for voters and policymakers who have neither the time nor the inclination to track the vagaries of campus goings-on. Major figures—including many donors—are staking out positions critical of higher education and withholding donations until there is change. The tide might finally be turning.

The thought-policing and groupthink on campus have become undeniable.The American public sees what’s going on. Last year, Gallup reported that trust in higher education has plunged, with just 36 percent of Americans saying they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher ed. The Wall Street Journal and the University of Chicago’s NORC research group found in 2023 that more than half of Americans thought that a four-year college education was no longer worth the cost “because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt.” The skepticism put an exclamation point on a decade-long trend during which the share of adults who valued a college degree had steadily declined.

It’s tempting for critics to spike the football or say, “We told you so.” Heck, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote God and Man at Yale in 1951, and Allan Bloom penned The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. They had the campus Left dead to rights generations ago. All we’ve seen since are the consequences that they foretold.

Especially in a culture currently obsessed with clickbait and claims of victimhood, it’s tempting to pose as a Cassandra, catering to angry funders and counter-punching the mighty education blob. And there’s certainly a place for that. But that’s a rejoinder, not an agenda. America needs a thriving system of higher education in order to retain her place as the world’s economic, social, and democratic powerhouse. Our best-known colleges and universities, in particular, have a crucial role to play in advancing research in the hard sciences and serving as training grounds for future leaders in commerce, civil society, and government.

Sorely needed right now, as the nation finally wakes to the perilous state of higher education, is a principled vision of how we get things back on track. In our new book, Getting Education Right, we’ve tried to offer just that.

After all, the history of American higher education is one of evolution. Harvard University was founded in 1636, followed by William and Mary in 1693. Both of these early colleges were established to educate clergy, the elites of their day. But as the U.S. industrialized and moved west, so too did American universities.

In the public sector, the 1862 Morrill Act set aside chunks of land to establish a flagship college of agriculture and engineering in each state. In the private sector, industrial giants such as Johns Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and John Rockefeller Sr. gave millions of dollars to found Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago, respectively. Others followed suit. There was a sense that new and better institutions of higher education were needed in order to meet the changing needs of the American economy and society.

The comfortable rhythms and routines established by yesterday’s innovations are to blame for many of higher ed’s problems.In the 19th century, these institutions were, above all, a response to the problem of scarcity. Books, faculty, and labs were hard to find, especially in the more sparsely settled parts of the United States. Given the technological constraints of the era, it made sense for colleges to put all of those resources in one place and have the students come to them.

Since America’s founding, then, colleges were established to solve the problems of their day. The early universities were designed for a rarified elite in a time when most people received a rudimentary education. As the economy evolved to require more technical expertise and more adults with specialized knowledge, new institutions emerged to supply it. When Abraham Lincoln signed it into law, the Morrill Act represented bold, far-sighted higher-education reform. It created a system of institutions focused on teaching skills in the realms of agricultural and mechanical engineering that helped provide essentials like food, shelter, and transportation to a rapidly expanding nation.

Of course, today, all those constraints have fundamentally changed. The challenge today is no longer access to books or teachers. Instead, it’s about groupthink, excessive costs, sclerotic institutions, lackluster instruction, grade inflation, and worthless credentials. Unfortunately, the answers devised in the 1850s and 1950s aren’t much help with any of this. Indeed, the comfortable rhythms and routines established by yesterday’s innovations are to blame for many of these problems.

Rather than celebrate or rail against the familiar, we do better to frankly assess today’s challenges and opportunities and ask how higher education should meet them. When faced with the indignities of higher education today, it’s easy to grow so focused on what we’re against that we fail to articulate what we’re for. We should be for serious institutions that pursue wisdom and knowledge. We should be for campus communities where free inquiry isn’t stifled by groupthink or intimidation. We should be for higher education that allows students to obtain the skills and knowledge they seek via cost-effective options.

What’s needed is more affordability, free inquiry, rigor, and relevance. With those basic goals in mind, here are a few promising ways forward.

Control college costs. There’s widespread agreement that college costs too much and that students are borrowing too much. But perverse loan-“forgiveness” plans are not the answer. Instead, policymakers and entrepreneurs should overhaul college accreditation, explore the promise of competency-based education, and require colleges to have some skin in the game.

For an institution of higher education to receive federal funds, it must be accredited. The problem is that accreditors are trade associations operated and funded by the colleges they oversee, which means they operate as something of a protected, publicly funded cartel. Washington can change this by authorizing the creation of new accreditors not beholden to the same entrenched interest groups.

Universities need more affordability, free inquiry, rigor, and relevance.Such changes are particularly relevant if new educational models are to emerge, among them competency-based approaches that abandon the semester-by-semester clock in order to allow students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of the requisite material. This allows for accelerated credentials and big cost savings.

Colleges that accept public funds should also be responsible for a nontrivial part of the cost for each taxpayer-supported student who doesn’t graduate. This would introduce much-needed accountability and give colleges an incentive to help students successfully complete their degrees and then find gainful employment.

Protect free inquiry. When some protests are sanctioned and others are not—or when some identities are celebrated and others are not—observers rightly flag the devastating consequences for both students and free thought on campus. But another casualty of campus groupthink gets less attention than it deserves: scholarly research.

The recent disclosure by Harvard University’s Roland Fryer that “all hell broke loose” when he published research that undermined the progressive narrative about police racism (with colleagues urging him to hide his results) is a perfect illustration of the problem. The personal and professional consequences that he faced—as a tenured professor—clearly has a chilling effect on other, more precariously employed researchers at other institutions. The weaponization of DEI programs and loyalty oaths has pernicious consequences for intellectual heterodoxy and research integrity.

The size and nature of federal investment in research gives taxpayers a clear stake in ensuring that colleges and universities that accept federal research funds take free inquiry seriously. From the beginning, research grants and contracts have been funded under the nominal expectation that institutions receiving taxpayer dollars adhere to the tenets of responsible science—including the assurance that research questions, methods, and reporting will be guided by an inviolable commitment to free inquiry.

There’s a simple solution here. Federal officials should insist that institutions that take federal funds for research purposes commit to safeguarding free inquiry. It’s already the case that in order to be eligible for federal funds, colleges and universities must provide a long list of assurances governing everything from campus safety to harassment policies. It’s time to insist that they offer the same kind of assurances with regard to providing researchers with an academic environment that will brook no suppression, harassment, or intimidation of scholarly inquiry.

Retool philanthropy to help build anew. Last year, private actors contributed nearly $60 billion to American institutions of higher education. Those funds are provided by alumni, donors, foundations, and the like. Historically, colleges have seemed like a safe or appealing repository for this giving. Universities have cadres of professionalized campus fundraisers devoted to stroking the egos of wealthy donors. Existing universities have finely honed alumni networks and incentives (from legacy admissions to premium football tickets) that they can offer. Some conservative donors might also hope against hope that big gifts to existing universities will prompt change.

Frustrated donors can keep banging their heads against the same walls, or they can look for greener pastures.Happily, there are hints of such a change. Activist donors like Bill Ackman at Harvard are encouraging philanthropists to stand up to the campus bureaucrats and withhold donations until anti-intellectual DEI practices, free-speech double standards, and clear antisemitism are addressed. Plus, new programs in civic virtue and Western civilization are being launched at state universities in places such as Texas and Florida. This is all enormously healthy. But there’s another path worth exploring, too: the funding of wholly new institutions. The uber-wealthy used to underwrite new universities. In recent decades, they’ve been far more likely to finance buildings or programs at existing ones. It’s time for that to change. The nascent University of Austin, which has received well-deserved acclaim and been showered with support, is a terrific model. But we need more of everything.

We need more universities dedicated to cultivating virtue, unfettered debate, and fearless exploration, as well as more gems like Hillsdale College with strong commitments to teaching the Western canon and valorizing the American founding. But we also need more tech-infused models that provide cost-efficient, rigorous, nimble alternatives to the status quo and more certification and apprenticeship programs that offer a feasible alternative to college. Such endeavors will force incumbents to compete for students while reducing the number of people held hostage by the college cartel.

Frustrated donors who find colleges and universities unable or unwilling to address their concerns can keep banging their heads against the same walls or they can look for greener pastures. We know what we’d recommend.

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the state of higher education today. America’s colleges and universities have certainly worked hard to earn that pessimism. But Americans are problem-solvers. We have a unique knack for finding a way when things look bleak. Last December, congressional Republicans helped force a reckoning that many have preferred to avoid, humbling the presidents of three of America’s most esteemed universities. In doing so, they cast a brilliant spotlight on the degree to which the nation’s leading colleges have become a hotbed of racial politics and groupthink hypocrisy. That was a dark day for Harvard, UPenn, and MIT. But it may yet turn out to have been a bright one for the effort to revive higher education.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Michael Q. McShane is national research director for EdChoice. They are the authors of Getting Education Right: A Conservative Vision for Improving Early Childhood, K-12, and College.