College Isn't Higher Education and May No Longer Be the Best Way to Deliver the Goods

Many Americans are said to be turning against higher education. They may just be sick of an expensive and dysfunctional model that's outlived its usefulness.


There's a "deep partisan divide on higher education," reported Inside Higher Ed in July. A month later, Gallup got more specific, asking, "Why are Republicans down on higher ed?"

Is that really true? Have our red/blue tribal loyalties actually split us over our views of the value of education beyond the high school level? Let's see.

Well, the articles, based on separate polls from Pew and Gallup, found some strong partisan disparities. According to Pew, 58 percent of Republicans say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country (36 percent said they have a positive effect), compared to 19 percent of Democrats with a negative view of colleges and universities. Gallup found that only 33 percent of Republicans and those leaning Republican have a great deal of faith in colleges and universities (67 percent had some or very little), compared to 56 percent of Democrats and those leaning that way (43 percent had some or very little).

So why do Republicans have so little faith in—

Wait a minute. Those headlines said "higher education," but poll respondents were asked about "colleges and universities." That's not necessarily the same thing. Sure, colleges and universities have long been the traditional means of hammering learning into the heads of adults, but asking about the delivery system isn't the same thing as asking about the product.

And the delivery system is looking a bit seedy these days.

Pew shows a sharp flip in support for colleges and universities among Republicans from generally positive in 2010 to negative now (Gallup just added the question in its latest poll, so has no historical data). That flip occurred during years when colleges and universities have frequently featured in wince-worthy headlines about ideological intolerance, politicized instruction, and eroding due process.

In recent weeks, Reed College, a private, liberal-arts college in Oregon, canceled classes after student protesters disrupted lectures over accusations that a humanities course is too Euro-centric. "A group of freshmen also got involved, complaining that their lecture had been taken over, and the conversation became a shouting match," according to Inside Higher Ed.

At almost the same time, Bret Weinstein accepted a $500,000 settlement and he and his wife, Heather Heying, resigned from their positions teaching biology at Evergreen State College, in Washington. Weinstein was essentially chased off campus by activists for objecting to racially charged student protests. At the height of the controversy last spring, the campus closed amidst threats of violence and thousands of dollars in vandalism.

Students infuriated over disagreement and dissent? Well, why not? Too many disciplines—and entire campuses–have been captured by ideology, making opposition increasingly rare and risky. In 2015, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt cautioned that "As psychology has become politically purified, its concepts have morphed to make them more useful to social justice advocates trying to prosecute and convict their opponents. This political shift poses a grave danger to the credibility of psychology."

Two years later, sociologist Musa al-Gharbi echoed that warning, writing, "The fact that many US universities are so out of step with broader society is also contributing to declining public confidence in them—and a growing inability among social researchers to relate to ordinary people."

That "out of step" quality bleeds out of the classroom and affects even students who might try to hide dissenting viewpoints, but still expect decent treatment.

Amidst a tidal wave of lawsuits against colleges and universities for bypassing due process protections for the accused, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded a federal "dear colleague" letter that pressured college administrators to pursue sexual assault charges against students through campus kangaroo courts run according to dubious rules. The change didn't come out of the blue; prominent Harvard law faculty had warned in 2014 that "As teachers responsible for educating our students about due process of law, the substantive law governing discrimination and violence, appropriate administrative decision-making, and the rule of law generally, we find the new sexual harassment policy inconsistent with many of the most basic principles we teach."

After seeing the new procedures in action, several law professors who signed the earlier letter revisited the subject earlier this month, noting that under the new procedures, "Definitions of sexual wrongdoing on college campuses are now seriously overbroad," and that "The procedures for enforcing these definitions are frequently so unfair as to be truly shocking."

Nevertheless, many university administrators seem averse to restoring some legitimacy to campus judicial processes. University of California President Janet Napolitano and Stanford University Provost Persis Drell both expressed doubts about efforts to restore due process.

"Many institutions are doing just fine. They do not want a rollback," Deborah Brake, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, told Inside Higher Ed.

But then, why should due process find a nurturing home on college campuses when free speech is already so uncomfortable in such places? "A very significant fraction of students, across all categories, believe it is acceptable to silence (by shouting) a speaker they find offensive," reveals a poll of 1,500 undergraduate students released last week. That "significant fraction" consisted of 51 percent of students, by the way. For 53 percent of respondents, "their institution is expected to create an environment that shelters them from offensive views."

Ideological lockstep, intolerance, and kafkaesque proceedings don't come cheap, either. Tuition at Reed College this year is $53,900 plus fees, room, and board. Evergreen State College sells its brand of crazy at a more reasonable $6,700 per year for state residents and $24,000 for nonresidents. But overall, the college experience is getting much more expensive even as it grows more off-putting. "Between 2011-12 and 2016-17, published tuition and fee prices rose by 9 percent in the public four-year sector, by 11 percent at public two-year colleges, and by 13 percent at private nonprofit four-year institutions, after adjusting for inflation," says the College Board. In constant dollars, tuition, fees, room, and board at private four-year colleges have risen from $16,670 in 1976-77 to $45,370 in 2016-17.

That's a lot of money to pay to be brow-beaten, shouted down, and railroaded.

It gets no easier to cut the checks when companies like Penguin Publishing drop the requirement for job applicants to be college graduates because "there was growing evidence that there is no simple correlation between having a degree and ongoing performance in work." Penguin followed in the footsteps of Ernst & Young, which acted after it "found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken."

So, are a majority of Republicans (and a fifth of Democrats) down on higher ed? Maybe. But maybe they're just down on colleges and universities—and looking for a better delivery system for education that looks less like a very expensive totalitarian sleep-away camp.

There's plenty of potential out there, from the open courseware and online classes offered by MIT, to the language apps offered by Duolingo and its competitors. Classes from Khan Academy and resources from TEDEd are already giving students in-depth, protest-free instruction of a quality that the average college campus would be hard-pressed to equal. Massive Open Online Courses allow campus-style lectures without the peculiarities of brick-and-ivy culture. There's not yet a well-established alternative to college. But any or all of these may point the way to better approaches for educating eager students of all ages in years to come.

Is there a partisan divide over the value of higher education? Who knows—nobody has really asked. But there's a good chance that the old college and university delivery model for higher education is testing a lot of people's patience, and that it's time to try something new.