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No bailing out higher education without reform

Everybody wants a bailout. Higher education has its hand out, too. 

The University of California alone suffered an estimated $558 million in unanticipated costs because of the coronavirus pandemic just for the month of March. The American Council of Education already has asked for $46.6 billion in federal bailout money. If they get it, they’ll be back for more once it runs out. 

Even on the right, which is justly wary of the higher education establishment’s inefficiency and partisan bias, millions of Americans acknowledge the value of college education done right. 

Even on the left, millions of Americans ask whether their tax dollars should subsidize colleges that are bureaucratic, insulated and often anti-American. Even President Obama and former vice president Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee this year, criticize higher education’s excessive political correctness.   

Longtime professors such as myself ask whether Congress can support higher education without subsidizing segments of our universities that are dysfunctional, spendthrift and hostile to free speech. For some good answers, legislators and others concerned with higher education should read the new report from the National Association of Scholars (NAS).

The authors of the report, “Critical Care: Policy Recommendations to Restore American Higher Education after the 2020 Coronavirus Shutdown,” mainly former professors, understand the ivory tower’s strengths — and its flaws. They argue that any bailout needs guiding principles: 

  • No bailouts for the wealthy; 
  • No bailouts for administrators; 
  • Put students first; and 
  • Taxpayer-funded higher education should support American values. 

The report’s recommendations provide detailed guidance for applying these principles.

First, no taxpayer dollars should provide emergency relief to the 100 or so colleges and universities with the biggest endowments. As the ongoing college admissions scandals show, many elite institutions appear to have prioritized revenue over integrity for decades. In any case, they are fabulously well endowed, with the resources to take care of themselves. 

Second, in recent decades the number of higher education administrators has increased far beyond what colleges need. Bureaucrats now hugely outnumber professors and instructors, and as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt show in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” particularly regarding free speech and academic rigor, such bureaucrats often do more harm than good. Accordingly, institutions receiving bailouts should agree to a 50 percent cut in administrative overhead as a condition of aid. Generally, aid should reward colleges that keep tuition and fees low. 

Third, bailouts should put students first. During this national emergency, we should freeze student loan repayments. Longer term, we must focus taxpayer funding on low income students, and make colleges pay back 30 percent of defaulted student loans, to keep colleges from accepting students with few prospects for success just to take their tuition money. Distance learning and traditional classrooms should get the same subsidies. To encourage academic rigor, we should refuse funding for colleges that award college credit for remedial courses.  

Fourth, just as no federal funds go to colleges practicing racial discrimination, we should not bail out colleges that attack free speech and intellectual diversity with bureaucratic speech codes, “bias response teams” and ideological discrimination in faculty hiring and student admissions. Taxpayer funding should go only to colleges that encourage civil debate and discourage ideological bias.

Finally, the NAS proposes that bailout funds go only to U.S. colleges that promote American values, by subsidizing national security related disciplines, giving American students preferences over international students, limiting Chinese government influence, and cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), rather than having “sanctuary campuses” for those here illegally.

My own list of proposals would read a little differently. I would require colleges that receive a taxpayer bailout to endorse the “Chicago principles” on freedom of expression. Online classes are usually less academically rigorous, so why subsidize more distance education? Like NAS, I oppose sanctuary campuses since no college that flouts federal law should get federal funds; yet I also would suggest reforming immigration law because America benefits from admitting talented and hard-working people from around the world. 

Notwithstanding those disagreements, I support most of the reforms in the NAS report. Most voters and elected officials will, too. When Congress considers bailing out higher education, the first thing they should read is “Critical Care.”

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He served in the U.S. government in the Clinton administration, and co-edited “The Politically Correct University.”

Tags Bailout coronavirus stimulus package Higher education Joe Biden

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