Trustees | Trusteeship

How come higher education never came up during the DeVos debate?

WASHINGTON EXAMINER   |  February 7, 2017 by Eric M. Bledsoe

Skeptics of new accountability will push back by saying that “colleges are not businesses.” They’re right. If colleges were businesses, the quality of a bachelor’s degree would rise and its price tag would fall. In any other industry, false quality assurances with rising costs would be tantamount to fraud. And yet, higher education continues to operate within an artificial market.

Solving the problems of quality and affordability in higher education begins with asking the right questions. Until policymakers begin addressing the actual challenges with realistic solutions, higher education’s “business as usual” model will drastically shortchange our students and squander scarce taxpayer dollars.

Today, Vice President Mike Pence broke the 50-50 tie in the Senate to confirm Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education in a historic vote. Her nomination and subsequent confirmation sparked much debate, but not about critical issues related to the cost and quality of college, which went largely untouched beginning with her January 17 hearing.

The reason lies with the incomplete line of questioning and public criticism leading up to Tuesday’s confirmation vote. A handful of evening news sound bites are no substitute for the articulation of meaningful solutions to pressing problems.

First, college (un)affordability, which weighs heavily on the minds of taxpayers, students, and their families, came up only once in the initial hearing, when DeVos noted that “there’s nothing in life that’s truly free.”

That is indisputably correct.

In the 2015–16 academic year, American taxpayers fronted $100 billion per year in loans and $28 billion in Pell grants to students. Since 1985, the cost of a college degree has increased more than 500 percent, more than four times the rate of inflation. Student debt now tops $1 trillion, exceeding the combined credit card debt of the nation, with the average student graduating more than $30,000 in debt.

With 40 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds enrolling in college, the prevailing model of higher education finance is unsustainable. Far too many Americans are struggling with debt, but they will have to wait to learn more about plans to make college more affordable.

Startlingly, other critical higher education issues did not receive even a cursory mention.

Accreditation Cartel: Speaking of finance, higher education still operates under a backward and inexplicable system of accreditation, in which six obscure but immensely powerful regional accreditors grant access to Title IV funding (e.g., Pell Grants). Accreditors today focus more on arcane rules and standards (administrative staffing and square footage per student) and trying to micromanage higher education leaders and governing boards.

The accrediting agencies focus on factors that have no direct effect on the quality of higher education, at the expense of other factors that do, like four-year graduation rates, job placement, and learning gains, which are not taken into account in determining whether an institution can draw from the billions of dollars in federal funding. Under this upside-down system of approval, public and private colleges can and do post single-digit four-year graduation rates and still receive accreditation, while efforts to innovate and improve educational quality are overlooked or even challenged.

Academic Drift: Outdated compliance with accreditors is not the only factor driving cost in higher education. For instance, colleges must heavily spend to produce strong outcomes within the constraints of a broken system. According to a 2016 report, one in four college freshmen has to enroll in remedial coursework, costing parents and students almost $1.5 billion per year. Today, colleges are too often responding perversely to a failing secondary education system by weakening their academic standards and general education requirements.

As the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s “What Will They Learn?” study of more than 1,100 colleges and universities found, more than 40 percent of schools do not require college-level mathematics, while only 3 percent require economics, and only 18 percent American history or government.

Getting What You Pay For: When students eventually graduate, there is little evidence to suggest they got what they paid for. In survey after survey, majorities of employers have consistently described recent college graduates as underprepared in the most essential skills of writing, critical thinking and problem solving.

This confirms the results of studies, such as the 2011 publication “Academically Adrift,” which showed that 45 percent of college students during their first two years and 36 percent over four years did not demonstrate substantial learning gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and problem solving.

Secretary DeVos is inheriting a higher education crisis with three heads: runaway costs, diminished standards and mediocre outcomes.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More