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We Don’t Need More College. We Need Better College
Colleges have become homes to ideological imbalance, runaway student debt and little academic rigor. Can anything be done to save college education?
By Matt Beienburg
In 1960, 8% of Americans over the age of 25 had completed four years of college. Today, nearly five times that many (38%) have earned a bachelor’s or advanced degree, while another 25% have completed at least some college or obtained an associate’s degree. States across the nation have jumped onto the bandwagon of trying to bring college attainment rates up even further: Several have stated that they want their attainment rate (including degrees or industry certifications) to reach 60% of adults by 2025, just two years from now.
While more and more Americans have set their sights on postsecondary degrees, those numbers haven’t translated into more robust civic health. Instead, at the same time colleges are focusing on amorphous platitudes such as “global citizenship,” The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that “patriotism,” “hard work,” “community involvement” and various other measures of civic health have fallen precipitously over the past three decades, leading the paper to conclude: “America Pulls Back From Values That Once Defined It.”
Emerging cracks in the college value proposition—coupled with several worrying national trends—suggest that American higher education may need much more of a course correction than it does any further amplification. In particular, universities must restore their intellectual integrity, address their runaway ideological imbalance, rein in their ruinous student debt-driven financial model, and recommit themselves to transmitting foundational knowledge central to a prosperous republic.
A New Campus Orthodoxy
American college campuses hold themselves up as paragons of intellectual diversity, but in reality, they’ve long been an oasis for left-wing activism. But only recently has their incubation of controversial ideologies such as critical race theory burst into the public consciousness and created a conflict with many institutions’ core tenets. Indeed, in sharp contrast to even the heyday of 1960s campus radicalism, colleges have embraced activist principles that directly undermine their core commitments to free expression, academic inquiry and fearless pursuit of truth.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the behemoth of “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) initiatives, which have established a new campus orthodoxy. Under the banners of DEI, “anti-racism” and similar mantras of social justice, colleges are increasingly making clear that dissent from progressive tenets on race and gender is simply unwelcome. For instance, the American Enterprise Institute has documented that nearly one out of every five college faculty job postings now includes a mandatory “diversity statement,” in which candidates are expected to expound upon their support for diversity, equity and inclusion. (AEI’s estimate, from 2021, likely dramatically undercounts the true current total. For example, the Goldwater Institute, where I work, has documented that up to 80% of job postings for new faculty hires at Arizona’s public universities now require a “diversity statement.”)
But lest the high rates of mandatory diversity statements be confused with suggesting broad institutional support for intellectual diversity, colleges have used specific rubrics that penalize applicants for answers that endorse concepts like colorblind equality. As National Association of Scholars senior fellow John Sailer has revealed, for instance, schools like the University of South Carolina award the minimum score to any job applicant who “explicitly states the intention to ignore the varying backgrounds of their students and ‘treat everyone the same.’” Even though such screening practices have been widely condemned by scholars such as New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, institutions like the University of California, Berkeley have rejected as many as three-quarters of applicants for unsatisfactory diversity statement responses, regardless of the candidates’ credentials.
While diversity statements have undermined the intellectual freedom and integrity of American colleges at this first stage of faculty hiring, related efforts are also now chilling the speech of those already admitted to or employed by the universities. As the First Amendment advocacy organization Speech First has chronicled, for example, over half of public and private universities now operate “bias reporting systems,” which encourage college students to monitor and report on speech they find politically incorrect, offensive or otherwise undesirable. Ostensibly established to create more welcoming and inclusive campus environments, such reporting systems more closely resemble an Orwellian surveillance state in which dorm room conversations, classroom discussions or any other campus exchanges are subject to politically motivated reprisal.
Indeed, these systems are so antithetical to free speech and debate that at Oklahoma State University, students may file complaints against peers for “bias,” defined as “a disproportionate weight in favor of or against an idea or thing, usually in a way that is close-minded, prejudicial or unfair.” As Speech First has reported, at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, “any student found to be responsible for an act of bias” can face “disciplinary actions up to and including permanent dismissal from the university.” Such censorship not only does a disservice to the climate of campus debate, but also ultimately destroys a core pillar of the college value proposition: the opportunity to challenge assumptions and debate ideas freely.
Alongside these bias reporting systems, American universities now employ armies of administrators via new DEI offices, which are charged with saturating campus life and curricular programming with “diversity.” As the Heritage Foundation has documented, for instance, these non-faculty roles have ballooned so extensively that “the average institution … lists 1.4 times as many DEI personnel as tenured or tenure-track history professors.” The fruits of such DEI thought leaders have ranged from the merely symbolically absurd—such as declaring the word “field” too problematic (for its connection with slavery)—to the wholesale dismantling of standards via the elimination of testing requirements like the SAT.
Such anti-intellectualism threatens to erode not only colleges’ commitment to free inquiry, but also universities’ basic academic rigor and the institutions’ value in preparing students for life after graduation. As sociologists Richard Arum of the University of California, Irvine and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia found over a decade ago, nearly half of college students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of their college experience—with over a third failing to do so even after four years.
Likewise, Gallup has more recently observed a cratering level of confidence in colleges’ ability to actually prepare students for the workforce. According to the polling firm’s findings in 2023, “only 13% of Americans strongly agree college graduates in this country are well-prepared for success in the workplace. That's down from 14% two years ago and 19% three years ago. This is effectively a ‘no confidence’ vote in college graduates’ work readiness.”
While it remains too early to quantify the extent or acceleration of these trends going forward, it is clear that the abandonment of objective scholastic standards in favor of new campus doctrines like DEI threatens to exacerbate these already precarious conditions.
Can We Make College Worth the Money?
Taken together, amid the screening of new applicants via diversity statements, the chilling of student and faculty speech via bias reporting systems, the takeover of the campus climate by hordes of DEI officers and the decline in academic rigor, there is perhaps little wonder why prospective students (or would-be professors) might balk at committing four or more years to the college experience. That aspect alone might be enough to undermine the decades-long sprint toward more universal college participation. But add to that the increasingly unsustainable economic model of college for so many students, and it is clear that higher education risks the bottom falling out.
It’s no secret that tuition costs of public and private colleges have exploded over the past several decades—by some estimates rising as much as five times faster than inflation. And while it’s true that the conventional wisdom holds that even costly degrees still pay for themselves in the long run via higher lifetime earnings, the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal has observed that “underemployment among recent college graduates has remained high over the past decade, with between 12% and 15% of recent college graduates working in low-wage jobs.”
Moreover, the current crisis over student loan “forgiveness” makes clear that the “value” of college never actually materialized for a large swath of students, leaving taxpayers potentially on the hook to bail out university-related debts. Unfortunately, rather than pursue reforms that might better align the risks and rewards of college-borrowing (such as holding the institutions themselves partly responsible for unpaid tuition bills), left-wing politicians appear bent on exacerbating the problem by issuing taxpayer-funded amnesty for some borrowers. It’s a move that will almost certainly encourage more borrowing for college, regardless of the value of the degree being pursued.
Given this increasing disconnect between the cost and value of college degrees, it's perhaps no surprise that leaders on both the left and right have called for decoupling job prospects from college attainment. Just last month, for instance, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin joined other Republican and Democratic governors in Maryland, Colorado, Utah and Pennsylvania in removing artificial college degree requirements from government job applications. And legislators in multiple other states are working to do likewise. What for years has served as a signaling mechanism of quality applicants to employers increasingly looks to represent little more than an expensive paper credential—even if it’s purchased at taxpayer expense.
Such reforms may help to reduce the current pressures artificially propping up college enrollment. In fact, coupled with demographic changes and COVID-19 disruptions, American higher education may have already hit a tipping point: Enrollment has tumbled by nearly 1.4 million students in the wake of the pandemic, dropping swiftly among both men and women.
So it is possible that over time, the reach and influence of college will simply continue to shrink, naturally curbing any impact of radical DEI measures or the number of students taking on exorbitant debts. However, even if new norms emerge and college-going rates recede, the American university is likely to remain a major fixture of our society. It is essential, therefore, that efforts be made to improve it and restore its value proposition.
Fortunately, there are reforms we can make to do just that—for example, banishing diversity statements, abolishing bloated DEI bureaucracies, dismantling bias reporting systems and prohibiting the coercive infusion of DEI into college curricula. Such reforms, as well as requiring the introductory study of constitutional principles (including the First Amendment), would reinvigorate the foundational pillars of civic education.
While these trends surely owe to many factors, there seems little doubt that the politicized, race- and gender-based activism now consuming college campuses—and the active undermining of core civic principles such as merit, hard work and free speech—are likely exacerbating these figures. The current state of civic knowledge among the next generation paints perhaps an even more dire picture of the future. So it is essential that universities act quickly to restore—not further erode—the pillars of our republic. The future of the nation, and the continued value of a college degree, may well depend on it.