Don’t Reform Higher Education. Rebuild It

COMMENTARY Education

Don’t Reform Higher Education. Rebuild It

Aug 15, 2022 5 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Jonathan Butcher

Will Skillman Fellow in Education

Jonathan is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation.
Higher education requires rebuilding instead of simply reforming. elenabs/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

As students go back to school, voters, taxpayers, and policymakers are asking: Can higher education be saved?

Most colleges and universities in the U.S. need more than reform. The rot is palpable.

For those attending schools that were created to rebuild higher education, it is already an exciting time to go back to campus.

Skyrocketing tuition costs. Administrative bloat. Shout-downs on campus. Each of these problems represents a unique challenge for college students and their families, as well as for taxpayers and policymakers. Taken together, they represent a crisis. 

As students go back to school, voters, taxpayers, and policymakers are asking: Can higher education be saved? A better question—and one that heralds a more substantive answer—is being asked by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists: Can higher education be rebuilt? 

The Rot in Academia

Most colleges and universities in the U.S. need more than reform. The rot is palpable. Taxpayers should be appalled at proposals for so-called “loan forgiveness” because no one is being forgiven—costs are merely shifting. President Joe Biden’s administration wants to unload all loan costs on taxpayers. Federal officials have already started the process by carving out certain student groups for forgiveness, such as students at certain for-profit colleges, along with giving a so-called “fresh start” to students who were in default before the pandemic. Taxpayers, whether they know it or not, are already covering these expenses. 

Meanwhile, universities have suffered from administrative bloat for years. Policymakers should question school budgets and the growth of departments committed to so-called “diversity.” Non-instructional spending on student services and administration is increasing at higher rates than instructional spending.

Given the spread of “diversity” offices, why do students still weigh the cost of sharing their opinions out loud for fear that they will be canceled? Ostensibly these offices are created to make more students feel welcome. But campus climate surveys show students are afraid to speak up inside or outside of class. Headlines continue to report that shout-downs and other examples of campus censorship sadly have become routine. Administrative bloat and the diversity craze have not made universities more civil.

“It’s not new that conservative people have been sending their children to liberal schools,” said education entrepreneur Robert L. Luddy in an interview. “People think in the status quo. They send their children there and don’t think about it.”

Creating Competetive Alternatives

Luddy has created private schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia that teach curricula based on classic works of literature, science, and history. He is now applying the same technique to higher education. “In recent years, colleges have become more expensive and egregious in the things they are doing,” he said.

Luddy is part of a select group of business leaders, researchers, and educators around the U.S. who are trying to repair higher education by building new colleges as examples of what higher education should be. 

He created Thales College to “provide a high quality, affordable undergraduate option for students.” Tuition stands at $4,000 per term. Students can finish in three years and will complete coursework while also working in apprenticeship programs. 

“It takes a range of skills to be very successful,” Luddy said. He wants to offer students an education “that is leading somewhere.”

Luddy and other founders of new schools stress that they can build new institutions focused on pursuing truth without destroying existing schools. 

“We can’t abandon the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities,” Michael Poliakoff, President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a group that studies higher education, said in an interview. “There are too many lives at stake.” 

Poliakoff, too, believes in rebuilding. He is a member of the Board of Visitors for Ralston College in Savannah, Georgia—another new school for those hoping for reform, as the current trends leave reformers in what he calls “a boat going upstream.”

Added Poliakoff: “We need places that have actually thought through ‘what is it that makes an educated person?’” 

C. Bradley Thompson, executive director for Clemson University’s Institute for the Study of Capitalism, is also on the board at Ralston. “The traditional understanding of a university has been entirely lost in today’s world,” Thompson said in an interview. “There is a market, a huge demand, out there from young people and their parents for a better kind of education.”

He explained that Ralston wants to restore the 19th-century ideal of education, which he says is the “relentless pursuit of truth and the wisdom and knowledge that has been passed down generation to generation for almost 2,000 years in Western civilization.” Noted author and free speech advocate Jordan Peterson is the school’s chancellor.

Cultivating Diversity of Thought

These ideas about rebuilding and this entrepreneurial spirit are spreading. Other free speech defenders and cultural commentators such as former Wall Street Journal and New York Times writer Bari Weiss and Brown University professor Glenn Loury helped launch the University of Austin in Texas last year. Times columnist Ross Douthat called the school an important experiment and an “effort to push back against [the] decadence” of higher education. 

Philanthropist and investor Stacy Hock is on the board of advisers at U. Austin. She explained in an interview that “any vibrant industry is benefitted by new entries to the marketplace.” 

“The idea of starting a new institution that can be on par with [established institutions] is daunting,” Hock said. Still, she added, “it’s desperately needed.” When U. Austin launched last year, Hock said thousands of students and tenured professors expressed interest in the new school. 

“Students felt self-censored on campus,” Hock continued. “There was this real desire to engage with intellectuals around ideas in a pretty uncensored but also rigorous way.” The school launched a seminar program for undergraduates this summer, and school leaders expect to offer both master’s and bachelor’s level programs in the coming years.

Investors based in Silicon Valley started Minerva University a decade ago, offering virtual classes and providing students with opportunities in cities such as Seoul, Berlin, and Taipei for different job training experiences. The school is highly selective and admits just 1 percent of student applicants. 

The traditional four-year college experience is not the right choice for every student after high school. But those who want a degree should be able to choose between schools based on academic quality and affordability. They should be able to choose between schools that protect the diversity of ideas. Reams of research find that a strong majority of professors support left-of-center policymakers and causes. Students at this level need to wrestle with ideas, and this process requires instruction from different perspectives.

“America’s universities are an anathema to what universities should be about,” Clemson’s Thompson noted. “Soon we are going to see colleges that don’t have DEI offices,” he said, adding, “going forward, these are very exciting times.”

Higher education requires rebuilding instead of simply reforming. For those attending schools that were created to rebuild higher education, it is already an exciting time to go back to campus.

This piece originally appeared in the Federalist