Last month, President Trump signed an executive order titled “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities.” Some hailed the order as a much-needed response to rising illiberalism on college campuses, while others called it a solution in search of a problem.
Like many, when I first heard about the order, I focused on the goal. The first question that came to my head was: “Do we really want the government to be in the business of legislating ‘free inquiry?’”
That’s an interesting political philosophy question, but it avoids the fundamental problem of universities these days: debt-financing enables the administrative and academic departments targeting free speech on campus and silencing conservatives.
People Think College Is About Education, But It’s Often Not
Higher education is riding on its reputation as a gateway to a bright future. As of 2018, 82 percent of Americans believed a four-year degree was either “very” or “somewhat” good preparation for attaining a well-paying job. However, recent events have eroded that reputation, especially amongst conservatives.
“Under the guise of speech codes, safe spaces, and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity, and shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today,” President Trump said as he signed the executive order.
Trump’s comments weren’t just red meat. Do a Google search for names like Brett Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Heather Mac Donald, Dave Rubin, and Ben Shapiro plus the term “college controversy” to find shocking stories of liberals, moderates, and conservatives being driven from college campuses. A common theme is the rationale under which the above-named figures are driven out: promoting “inclusivity,” “equity,” or “safety” from “hate” and “violence.”
This attempt at silencing is now aimed all the way up to justices on the Supreme Court. Most recently, when George Mason University’s School of Law hired Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to teach a class, students at the university demanded his appointment be rescinded, one saying, “As a survivor, as a student who comes to this university, and expects to have a good education, to experience a happy, safe place, I am insulted.”
It’s tempting to dismiss this kind of rhetoric. College kids are expected to be a bit radical in their youth, right? This language is much harder to defend when students, faculty, and alumni of Yale Law School use it in penning an open letter protesting Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Where do students learn such crazy ideas about the world? Who is providing them with this familiar script?
Campus Bureaucrats Are the Most Biased
Conservatives have long focused on college professors as the source of the most radical ideas taught on campus. For example, Young America’s Foundation annually releases a list of college courses with fringe, far-left ideology. Classes like “Science After Feminism” make it clear that even something as “objective” as science cannot escape leftist ideology.
However, according to Professor Samuel J. Abrames, an exclusive focus on professors is misplaced. In an opinion article for the New York Times, Abrames wrote, “While considerable focus has been placed in recent decades on the impact of the ideological bent of college professors, when it comes to collegiate life — living in dorms, participating in extracurricular organizations — the ever growing ranks of administrators have the biggest influence on students and campus life across the country.”
According to Abrames, college administrators are the primary driver of programs regularly inundating students with on-campus events, such as “Understanding White Privilege”— a gateway into the Marxist, identitarian myth of Western Civilization as a place of constant oppression in the form of patriarchy, colonialism, cis- and hetero- normativity, and systemic racism.
Abrames calls our attention to the fact that while students self-identify as liberal at a ratio of two-to-one, their professors self-identify as liberal at a ratio of six-to-one, and university administrators—the people responsible for structuring the curriculum and culture of the institution—self-identify as liberal at a ratio of twelve-to-one.
Abrames highlights something critical. While professors are responsible for some of the indoctrination happening on college campuses, the newest aspect of on-campus indoctrination comes primarily from the massive, very liberal bureaucratic apparatus that has developed in the last 30 years. It was administrators who told conservatives at Berkeley they had to pay the outrageous sum of $15,000 in security costs to bring Shapiro to speak on their campus, and it was administrators who ultimately offered, then rescinded, an honorary doctorate to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. These acts, combined with the kind of on-campus events Abrames describes, all send an indoctrinating message.
Data from Pew Research shows the effects of this indoctrination. Only 26 percent of people with high school degrees identify as “consistently” or “mostly” liberal, and 48 percent identify as having a mixed opinion. Fifty percent of students starting out with “mixed opinions” (let’s call them “moderates”) going into college come out the other end of the government-subsidized system self-identifying as liberal.
Of those who progress all the way through higher education to attain a graduate degree, 54 percent self-identify as “consistently” or “mostly” liberal and only 22 percent identify as holding “mixed” opinions. Finally, those who remain conservative become more conservative, likely as a response to the heavy, left-of-center indoctrination efforts by college administrators.
The Costs of Indoctrination Are Steep
The rapid increase in tuition costs correlates strongly to the rapid increase in on-campus administrators. In turn, those tuition increases are made possible by federally guaranteed student loans.
According to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, increases in government-subsidized student loans led to significant increases in tuition, especially amongst private and for-profit universities. In other words, the more students are enabled to borrow, the more universities increase their tuition. Since 1988, the average cost of a degree from a public four-year institution has increased 213 percent.
Where does this additional tuition money go? Professor Paul F. Campos surveyed the data and presented a startling picture. From 1993 to 2009, colleges and universities increased the total number of administrators by 60 percent while decreasing the number of full-time faculty members.
In 1970, the number of full-time faculty as a percentage of total employees at the average university was 78 percent, but in 2015 that number was only 50 percent. As an example, from 1975 to 2008, the California State University System increased the number of administrators by an astounding 221 percent.
Students Need Incentives, Not Just Information
Trump’s executive order attempts to address this through financial “transparency.” Section 4, subsection ii of the order mandates that universities provide “program-level data for each certificate, degree, graduate, and professional program” outlining the median earnings, Stafford loan debt, median Graduate PLUS loan debt (if applicable), median Parent PLUS loan debt, and student loan default and repayment rates. The idea is to assign economic value to a degree in the hopes it will make students more selective about their majors. Seems sensible enough, right?
To find out, I reached out to the president of one of the few affordable and accredited colleges in the nation. John Mark Reynolds is the president of the The College at Saint Constantine in Houston, Texas. Reynolds says the fundamental reason higher education is so expensive is administrative bloat made possible by government-backed student loans.
“This executive order is government money attempting to solve the problem of government money. The problem is universities have no accountability for the money after they receive it. This order may make universities more accountable for that money, but ultimately they’ll produce one more paper to be added to a large stack of papers. Students won’t read it, but colleges will hire yet more administrators to produce it,” he said.
Reynolds broke down the math for me: “Typically, universities allocate around $0.30 cents of every dollar to items under the provost’s control. Think about that. Only $0.30 cents of every dollar goes to actual education. The rest go to other programs and administration.”
When we think of the “product” of a university, we think of a college degree and the education behind it. If Reynolds is right, however, then most universities are only spending $0.30 of every tuition dollar on the “product.” The rest of the money is going to other things. Campos makes a compelling case the “other things” are primarily college administrators—whose function includes a heavy dose of political indoctrination.
A Missed Opportunity to Address the Real Problems
Debt-financing by America’s youngest generation has made it possible for universities offer politicized, useless majors and administratively driven indoctrination. It seems clear the “education” these students are debt-financing is not worth the money they are spending on it.
Only 27 percent of people have a job related to their degree, and up to 40 percent of borrowers are expected to default on their student loans by 2023. This is very concerning considering that outstanding education debt in the U.S. has tripled in the last decade; it now exceeds $1.5 trillion. This is already affecting our entire economy. For example, student loan debt is pushing many millennials to delay buying homes, which makes it harder for them to accumulate wealth and negatively affects local economies. Nor are college graduates coming away better citizens, future parents, or equipped to contribute to society in any other way beyond paid work.
“If I ran the kind of university that relied heavily on debt-based financing, I’d view this [executive] order as a relief. The real threat would have been if the Trump administration had gone after the system of debt in the first place,” Reynolds said. He’s exactly right.
Conservatives are right to be concerned about the indoctrination happening on college campuses. They are also right to be concerned about the mounting debt that is financing this indoctrination. But the two issues are connected by government subsidies of student loans. This is the root cause, and Trump’s executive order missed it. It assumed a government-backed, debt-financing model of education.
But imagine if universities had to produce a product valuable and affordable enough that students would pay for it without government-backed debt financing. How many indoctro-crats do you think universities would keep on their payrolls? How many “Science After Feminism” classes would they pay professors to teach? I’d venture to guess far fewer if students no longer had easy access to government money and became highly selective about classes for which they were paying upfront.
Universities do not seem to be in the business of providing students an education that lands them a job in their field of study, improves their maturity and service to their families and communities, or even that pays enough to make it possible for graduates to pay back their student loans. Instead, they appear to be in the business of indoctrination.
The Trump administration could have solved both of these problems by attacking the broken university business model itself. Unfortunately, this executive order simply adds more administrators to university payrolls—administrators who will only contribute to the problem that prompted the executive order in the first place. It’s clearly a missed opportunity.