When you pay dearly for a room at a luxury hotel or a meal at a five-star restaurant, the price tag may sting but at least you can see, feel, taste, touch and smell what you are getting. The same is not the case in higher education.
“We don’t have answers to parents who ask us if spending one-third of their income on a college education is worth it,” Sarah Martinez Tucker of the U. S. Department of Education said last month at the American Enterprise Institute. Statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that the U. S. ranks:
• First in government spending on education;
• 18th in high school graduation rates;
• 10th among countries in 25-35 year-olds who have college degrees; and
• First among countries with 55-65 year-olds who have college degrees.
“This is the first generation in our history that isn’t doing as well as the last,” Tucker, the former CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, observes. Nor, as we have seen, does the problem seem to be a niggardly federal government.
“In the last decade we have tripled aid,” Tucker said at AEI. “We have 55 percent more students and are giving three times as much aid.”
At the same time, “One-quarter to one-third of family incomes go to the cost of college yet we have more applications for fewer slots at many schools,” Tucker points out. Yet, there is little indication that the surge in spending has resulted in greater quality.
“Once an institution gets accredited, it’s a low bar,” Arthur Rothkopf of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce said at AEI. “An institution rarely loses its accreditation.”
“Why is it good for them to require tests on the way in but not on the way out?” Rothkopf was formerly the president of Lafayette College.
In that capacity, he saw accreditors grade him on such “selected topics” as whether Lafayette had a new library or had raised “new money for study abroad scholarships.” Accreditors do not look at core curricula, intellectual diversity or grade inflation, according to Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “but they do foist so-called diversity requirements on mission statements.”
“The real fraud in education is not from the so-called ‘diploma mills’ but from traditional colleges and universities,” Jeff Sandefer of the Acton School of Business told the crowd at AEI. “They are selling prestige instead of education.”
“You can get an MBA for $45,000 before you change planes in Fort Worth.” Sandefer, who formerly taught at the University of Texas, also offered some intriguing insights as to where the money goes in higher education.
The average cost of a college education is $30,000 but “70 percent of the courses
are taught by non-tenure-track faculty like me making $1,000 a month as adjuncts,” he
says. Could it be that the tenured faculty who teach one-third of the classes are
responsible for the lion’s share of the cost of higher ed?
This would be doubly ironic since this fortunate third tend to be
made up overwhelmingly of share-the-wealth types. “Economics will eventually trump
politics in higher education and the accreditation system will crumble,” Sandefer believes,
but asks “What will replace it?”
The answer to that question may prove to be unsettling. “The accreditation
process resembles The DaVinci Code,” Charles Miller, who headed the U. S. Secretary
of Education’s Commission on Higher Education, said at AEI. “The accreditation
agencies are founded by academic institutions and funded and staffed by them.”
“They have life or death power over them.” As he sees it, “Accreditation is the
biggest barrier to change.”
And what is his solution? “We need new accreditation agencies,” he argues, but
goes on to warn that “It seems likely that a new accreditation agency would have to be
funded, at least initially, by the federal government.”
It is extremely difficult to find an agency or program “initially funded” by the
feds that taxpayers were ever able to stop bankrolling. It is also hard to unearth a corrupt
institution that did not reach new depths of corruption under Uncle Sam’s watch.
The Teamsters Union comes to mind. On the Spellings Commission reforms,
Rothkopf reports that “Some in the education community are trying to run out the
They might be doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.