America is fighting the wrong university wars

Oliver Bateman:

But while his rhetoric is grabbing headlines, DeSantis’s battle for ideological control of curricula is merely a distraction from the much greater crisis in education — the one that troubled me during my own time in academia. Instead of kvetching about CRT and bathroom access, our governors ought to be completely restructuring the country’s lower-tier state universities, which, aside from one or two flagships per state, are generally third-rate operations. Nationwide college enrolment has declined by 9.4% in the past two years, and these schools have been hit especially hard. State-funded universities are having their budgets slashed and adjuncts are even more overworked and underpaid; there is more focus on ineffective online classes, and worse learning outcomes for students who have been paying to watch ill-run Zoom courses in their cramped dorm rooms.

DeSantis’s own state is a textbook example of academic bloat. The State University System of Florida consists of 12 public universities, with 341,000 enrolled students, of which only four are engaged in what the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education refers to as “very high research activity”. The rest of these institutions, such as the enormous Florida Atlantic University, are vast and shabby post-secondary “student warehouses”, similar to UT-Arlington.

It is these universities, not the tiny New College of Florida, that constitute the real threat to public education — and not because they are “woke”, but because their retention and graduation rates are horrific. They are enrolling students, taking their federally-subsidised student loans, and barely graduating around 50% of them. The students, mostly commuters unsure of what to do with themselves but unable or unwilling to enter the workforce after high school, drift in and either drop out immediately, pocketing their first helping of financial aid, or linger forever, accumulating vast amounts of debt for a degree in a vague, meaningless subject like “Communications” or, as at UT-Arlington, “University Studies”.

The more complicated the system becomes, the more difficult it will be to reform it. America’s public post-secondary education depends on a welter of separate and sometimes overlapping budgets, but to be eligible to get a cut of the all-important $235 billion pool of federal financial aid, colleges have to meet Kafkaesque accreditation standards. Each state works with a cartel-like private accreditor, subjecting all universities to its review, regardless of the ambitions or capabilities of their student bodies. Typically, the result is a report that numbers hundreds of pages with innumerable recommendations, which creates absurd amounts of work for administrators and often drives excessive spending increases in order to meet supposed shortfalls in facility or faculty quality.