As someone who has researched American higher education for the past three decades, one thing I can tell you is that it involves a lot of numbers. A lot of graphs. A lot of percentages.
What it doesn’t provide is a lot of clarity. Why? It’s not the fault of the numbers gatherers, who are only playing with the overly-complicated hand they’ve been dealt.
It is instead the fault of the system itself, which manages to give the fits not only to higher-education researchers, but, far worse, to students, their parents, and the taxpayers who help foot the bill for education. Under the U.S. Constitution, all matters relating to education are solely the province of the individual states, under their “police powers.” But control by individual states over education has been lost, with top-down solutions from Washington WRE, D.C. force-fed down the throats of the once-sovereign 50 states.
To be sure, this is by no means to accuse the federal government of bad motives. It is, instead, to assert that Washington has taken on a task beyond its ability. This has happened not only in the field of education, but also others.
To see this, consider the joke we hear today when discussing the merits of a work project: “It’s close enough for government work.” Today, this is a term of humorous disparagement, deeming the project “not worth investing additional time on perfecting this thing.”
However, this is not the original meaning of the term. In fact, it is the opposite of the original meaning. When we reflect on that original meaning, it tells us something important about how and why American higher education has become such a confused and confusing enterprise.
The phrase “originated in World War II. When something was ‘good enough for Government work’ it meant it could pass the most rigorous of standards. Over the years it took on an ironic meaning that is now the primary sense, referring to poorly executed work.”
How did the meaning of this phrase get turned upside down? How did the standards of “government work” go from being a mark of excellence to one of joking derision? Not coincidentally, the fall of the government-work standard occurred at the same time that the federal government was dramatically increasing its power over areas of life never touched before. They were never touched before because the Constitution forbids it.
But that was then, and this is now. Fidelity to the Constitution has become oh-so-18th Century. Congress has accumulated so many powers and responsibilities to itself that its members can no longer exercise oversight of its manifold functions. Hence, Congress has delegated much and many of its former powers to administrative agencies, which act today as quasi-legislative bodies.
The fault lies not with Congress for delegating so many of its responsibilities to administrative agencies. This was simply a concession to necessity: Individual members simply could not handle their ever-growing responsibilities by themselves.
Instead, the fault lies with the explosion of federal power. And this returns us to the problem of bigness. Despite Washington’s power to dictate terms to states, despite recourse to legions of administrative experts, and despite mountains of “Big Data,” higher education remains a virtual black box to the American people. And not only to them. Higher education researchers continue, year after year, to dispute not only education policy, but even the reliability of the very data on which they depend. This is not surprising, given that the federal government has attempted to take upon itself administering the roughly 4,300 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States (as of the 2017-2018 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics). In 2017, these 4,300 institutions enrolled 16.8 million students.
It is a mark of hubris to think that a single entity can do justice to the diversity and particularity that is American higher education. And the price we have paid for our hubris is the three-fold crisis in which American higher education finds itself: (1) tuition hyperinflation; (2) crushing student-loan debt; and (3) poor student-learning outcomes.
We’ve become too big not to fail.
What, then, to do? I have argued that, on both constitutional and prudential grounds, what is required to regain a clear understanding of what we are doing in higher education are measures that reduce the federal role in higher education. The goal should be to return to individual states the higher-education-funds-authorizing power (under Title IV) for institutions of higher learning in each respective state. College students should be allowed to capitalize on the different offerings that would flower in the 50 states, once unshackled. Students should be free to receive funds to attend the school and program that best fit their needs. A return to federalism is the means most likely to achieve this end.
Moreover, making state accreditation sufficient for receipt of Title IV funding would break the grip of the regional accrediting bodies, which too often have acted as gatekeepers for the higher-education cartel—blocking entrance of alternative modes of education and therewith stifling needed innovation. Free to experiment, the states would become again the laboratories of democracy that the Constitution intends them to be. As a result, innovation would flower again, as states pick and choose from among the pioneering projects conducted by other states. And none knows better than the states themselves what the needs of their students are.
To be sure, empowering the individual states to certify their schools for receipt of Title IV federal funding would lead some states to adopt less-than-optimal arrangements. When this happens, the other 49 will take heed and not repeat the mistake. A continuous cycle among the states of trial, error, correction and imitation stands a better chance of yielding needed reforms than top-down edicts from Washington, D.C. In even the worst-case scenario—in which a prospective college student lives in a state whose higher education system is fatally flawed—the student is free to attend a more academically serious institution in another state, one that has capitalized on the opportunities provided by a return to state authorization of schools.
My point here is that the likelihood will be increased that there will still be other states with well-governed universities if states are allowed to forge their own paths. With a restoration of constitutional federalism, more students will be empowered to vote with their feet and pocketbooks. Moreover, the states from which they are fleeing will be forced to take note and reform themselves, if only out of economic self-interest.
For any of this to happen, we must close the Pandora’s Box of faith in big-government solutions and, with it, shun the vain conceit that inclines us to deem D.C. bureaucrats more capable of knowing and addressing state issues better than the states themselves.