Conservative War on Good Education

Last month we marked one year since the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education released a report castigating America’s ivory tower and setting out a “national strategy” to overhaul it. Also in September, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)—a conservative higher education watchdog—throttled some of America’s best universities for their performance on a test that seemed designed to fail them. And in Congress right now, many Republicans are pushing for bill that would publicly shame colleges that raise their prices too fast. Conservatives, it appears, are at war with the one system of American education that actually works.

Let’s start with ISI. This is the second year that it has given a U.S. history test to freshman and seniors at a sampling of American colleges and universities, and the results, by ISI’s account, were both abysmal overall, and worst at prestigious institutions.

“Higher education is a $325 billion business where at many prestigious universities presidents earn half-a-million dollars a year or more,” lamented ISI’s Josiah Bunting. “Ironically…the lowest gains in knowledge in America’s history and institutions are found at many of these elite universities where their presidents are simply not doing enough to help preserve our traditions of freedom and representative government.”

Sadly, ISI decided to grind its American-values ax on a misshapen stone. While in no school was knowledge of U.S. history great, in most cases scores were higher for seniors than frosh. That’s actually a pretty good outcome considering a critical factor that ISI chose to ignore: Most students go to college to study fields that have little if anything to do with U.S. history, which they should have covered in high school anyway. Moreover, while some elite schools did see seniors do worse than freshmen, their scores had the best chances of going down because they were the highest to begin with. Yale saw a three percent drop, but had the highest freshman score at 68.94. Princeton dropped almost two points, but started at 63.60. Meanwhile, Eastern Connecticut State University produced the biggest improvement, but its freshmen started at 31.34.

ISI’s complaints about U.S. history would be okay if its intent were just to argue that academia needs a different focus. But ISI doesn’t want to just persuade higher ed to change. At least in part, it wants government to force that change, with Bunting calling on state legislators, among others, “to hold the nation’s colleges and their presidents accountable for teaching…America’s history and institutions.”

Unfortunately, it seems government intervention has become many conservatives’ strategy of choice when it comes to academia.

Education Secretary Spellings’ commission was a clear shot across higher ed’s free-market bow, with commission chairman Charles Miller—a friend of Spellings and President Bush who helped develop the Texas predecessor to the extremely intrusive No Child Left Behind Act—talking openly about colleges needing to test students and publish the results to show what they were learning.

After vociferous objections to mandated testing from many people inside academia, the commission’s final report did not call explicitly for it. But the administration didn’t give up, trying for months to rewrite regulations to force accreditors to require that schools publicly provide “outcomes” measures that are comparable across schools. That’s also failed so far, but as Secretary Spellings made clear in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education interview, the war is just beginning.

“Are we done? Heck no,” she said. “But we’ve started.”

The war is being fought by Republicans in Congress as well. In the beginning of October, Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee, led by Ranking Member Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), introduced the College Access and Opportunity Act, which among other things would publish on a federal website schools whose tuition and fees rose for any three-year interval at a rate at least twice the Consumer Price Index.

The goal, says McKeon, is to “empower consumers and make college costs more transparent,” but the end result would be at best a soft price control on a system that thrives on market freedom.

There is great irony in conservatives’ assault on the ivory tower, of course. For decades, conservatives battled to get government out of education, but today not only have many decided to end that fight, they want to use government to control arguably the freest—and most envied—education market in the world, with its thousands of largely independent colleges and universities. Indeed, it seems the world has a better appreciation for American higher education than we do: In August, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—an association of industrialized nations—reported that far more students studying abroad were in the United States than any other country.

So what will happen if conservatives succeed in hog-tying academia with federal regulations? American higher ed will be turned into a bureaucratic, lifeless hulk just like American elementary and secondary schooling—which fails to teach our kids subjects like U.S. history in the first place—and conservatives, who once sang the praises of educational freedom, will deserve all the blame.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.