Victor Davis Hanson Misses the Mark: The Real Problem with Higher Ed

Though not too many tenured professors would likely admit it, most know that, if they want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. There is no shortage of alleged silver bullets, from Massive Open Online Courses to three-year bachelor’s degrees. But there is a problem: For the people with the kind of power to change the system–the tenured faculty and senior administration–the old ways still work pretty well.

Does it sound exploitative? Victor Davis Hanson certainly thinks it is, and he comes out with pistols blazing. He starts by describing colleges as “virtual outlaw institutions” and goes on to name a laundry list of things that badly need abolition or reform: tenure, contract faculty positions, the “studies” programs, admissions transparency, administration bloat, the credentialing system, the absence of competency testing, exploding budgets, publication costs and legal immunity.

It seems like a pretty complete list. But, curiously, Hanson declined to put down the most fundamental policy in need of reform: Accreditation. Losing accreditation can often be a coup d’grace for universities and typically undermines their ability to apply for federal money; also, because accrediting bodies endorse universities and colleges–as opposed to individual professors or professorial guilds–the practice keeps the pool of competition relatively small and the number of academic jobs reasonably low. PhD’s are only able to teach an accredited course when there is a podium to fill at an accredited university, even though they could often teach the same course in the basement of a local church without losing that much of the ambiance.

This is not to say that there are no benefits to the traditional college experience–living on a campus with other students, eating with them in the dining halls, learning to do your laundry and dress yourself (or at least put on a bathrobe) for the 11:30 class. To paraphrase a tenured friend, the heart of every university is the library–and that is something that you will usually only find on a campus.

The problem is that in recent years, university campuses have begun letting the books in the library gather dust while they have devoted more time to building other facilities that host fast food restaurants, swimming pools and treadmills with television screens perched on them; a department chair at a state university recently informed me that half of his institution’s budget went to expenses which were not directly related to education in any way. Instead, the funding went to mowing the lawns or maintaining the student services office.

Can we find a way to offer a college education without this massive amount of infrastructure that being accredited so often requires? It is difficult to say, but the 3.7% of student debtors who have over $100,000 in outstanding loans probably wish that they had been allowed to try because marginal reforms like those that Professor Hanson recommends are not going to make those six figures tick that far downward.

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