Can American Colleges Be Fixed?

Peter Lawler

Last week, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson lashed out at what he called the “higher education cartel” of tenured professors for blocking reforms that could reduce ballooning tuition and fees: “We’ve got the Internet—you have so much information available. Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to that knowledge for a whole lot cheaper? But that doesn’t play very well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel. So again, we need disruptive technology for our higher education system.” Johnson went on to suggest that students could learn as much and more efficiently by watching Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War than by taking a history class.

It’s a common complaint among conservatives that many tenured professors “radicalize” students with Marx and gender theory while living royally off of state funding and federal student loans. Online and competency-based education will fix both, according to critics like Johnson and Scott Walker, by limiting professors’ unchecked power and improving efficiency with market-based solutions.

There’s just one problem, according to Peter Augustine Lawler, the Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and a regular contributor to National Review, Modern Age, and many other conservative publications: It won’t work.

The number of administrative staff it takes to provide the lifestyle students expect and oversee the increasing amount of paperwork for accreditation is huge. Lawler doesn’t provide any figures, but they are relatively well-known. To give just one example: The number of full-time faculty in the California State University system increased slightly between 1975 and 2008, from 11,614 to 12,019, while the number of administrators nearly quadrupled during the same period, from 3,800 to 12,183.