The title and the text come from a speech given by David Randall, of the National Association of Scholars, NAS.ORG, at Grove City College, August 2018. I hope you get very angry: Whom the gods would destroy, they first grant a government subsidy. It didn’t seem that way when federal cash entered higher education—first the GI Bill of 1944, and then the Higher Education Act of 1965. The government was just going to make college cheaper. The colleges might get bigger, but there wouldn’t be much change besides. It hasn’t worked out that way. By now our colleges get most of their money from the government—about a quarter of their revenue comes from miscellaneous government grants, contracts, appropriations, and another quarter just from federally guaranteed student loans. By now hardly any dare risk foregoing Federal funding.
Federally guaranteed student loans are the real poisoned chalice—the gift that entangles all of higher education in the Federal government’s thickening web. After all, the government has to make sure it isn’t getting defrauded when it’s giving out student loans, so it creates regulations to make sure that its money only goes to real colleges. That’s solicitous of the taxpayer, but it’s also been the garden path toward a monstrous accreditation bureaucracy, and endless government regulations that colleges don’t fight if they value their tuition money. But it wasn’t just the government cracking its whip at the colleges. The way the government set up the student loan programs allowed the colleges to milk the Federal government for loan money—even when they didn’t provide students much education in return.
The central problem with the current system is that the colleges get the money, but it’s the students who’re taking out the loans. The colleges receive the tuition, with no strings attached, but the student has to pay up, even if he hasn’t gotten anything from the course—not a degree, not a passing grade, not even a proper education. Say a college admits a marginal student, not really prepared for college-level work. The college gets his $10,000 in first-year student loans as pure profit, but if the student drops out, he’s the one on the hook.
Gougem State could admit a mob of unprepared students, crowd them in by the two-hundred into freshman lectures delivered by an ill-paid graduate student, and make a mint precisely because more than half that mob would flunk out before sophomore year, and only a few survivors would be around to sign up for the more expensive, smaller upper-level courses. Of course, it doesn’t look good to have all your incoming students fail. Gougem’s Leo Bloom (the crooked Broadway show producer who wanted a show to fail after getting the monetary backing, in the movie, The Producers) might even have felt bad about admitting students just because they came with dollar bills attached, even if they couldn’t do college level work. Leo, therefore, hired a lot of bureaucrats with a cut of his government money, so Gougem could try to “retain” and “prepare” its students. These bureaucrats worked in retention and remediation offices—offices dedicated to keeping incoming students through to graduation, and offices dedicated to providing students the make-up work they needed to do college-level study. They had their hands full. By now, more than 50% of students at two-year colleges need remediation—and so do 20% of students at four-year colleges. Remedial courses nationwide now cost $1.5 billion annually. (You might as well hire a law firm named Dewey Fleecem and Howe to prepare your kid for the LSATs).
Of course, saying outright that up to half the students couldn’t do college work was a little embarrassing, so Leo came up with some euphemisms—the Office of Student Life, the Office of Residential Life, the Office of Diversity, First-Year Experience, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and so on. They still did the old retention and remediation work, but under a fig leaf. These retention and remediation bureaucrats didn’t have to succeed. In fact, it was just as well if they didn’t, since the more they succeeded, the less profit Gougem College made from student loans. They just had to look busy. Meanwhile, they should think they were forwarding some higher purpose—social justice, sustainability or diversity. Director of Multicultural Affairs had a nicer ring than Director of Pell Grant Harvesting. If the Director felt better when he combined social justice education with his retention efforts—why not keep him happy? No harm done, so long as the grants kept coming in.
The grants kept coming in, but too many students still failed, even with a phalanx of retention and remediation bureaucrats working nine to five. Leo decided that Gougem College needed to soften the standards of its courses. Remediation and retention wasn’t so hard if you just had to get your students up to an eleventh-grade level. Or a ninth-grade one. Better yet, Gougem could authorize new courses that didn’t require college-level work at all. You could disguise a few more retention bureaucrats as the professors who taught Social Activism and Service Learning instead of The Italian Renaissance.
Reform: Making colleges responsible for 30 percent of student loans nationwide would threaten them with billions of dollars of liability if they refused to change their ways. Even Harvard would blink if faced with a financial penalty of that size, and most colleges have far slenderer resources. 30 percent responsibility should provide a sufficient incentive even for the most ideologically committed Gougems in the country. The main effect of this reform would be to encourage colleges and universities to admit only well-prepared students. Students who aren’t prepared for college are also bad risks for being able to repay a college loan down the road, as they tend to drop out without improving their chances for well-paid employment. And even those who graduate often do so in majors that aren’t much help in the labor market. This reform would be good in and of itself, but it will also disproportionately reduce politicization on campus. Colleges that admit fewer badly prepared students won’t need to come up with ideological rationalizations to justify their presence.
The decrease in the number of remedial students would also disrupt the social-justice-and-remediation career track by decreasing the number of bureaucrats dedicated to retaining unqualified students, in all the “co-curricular” bureaucracies that euphemize retention and remediation. Reducing their numbers should likewise reduce campus politicization. Reducing the number of unqualified students will also reduce the incentive to create hollow politicized courses for unqualified students. Identities studies courses, civic engagement courses, and the like, all give students credit for saying I Am My Identity—not least to provide a gut course for unprepared students. The faculty who teach such courses are often the most actively radical; their disappearance from the campus will also improve the intellectual climate. Reducing the number of remedial students also reduces the need for communications departments, politicized bastions that smuggle left-wing propaganda into teaching basic writing.
I say parents, get smart, don’t take out loans, if students want and are prepared for college, let them work and save, then go, and choose cheaper schools or online education; alumni, quit enabling this crap by endowing schools that are doing it; students, earn it! My kids did, why not you?