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September 27 2017

Many Now Doubt Value of Higher Education

by Charlotte Hays

Fascinating poll results from the Pew Research Center indicate that Republicans are no longer sold on the value of a college education. Inside Higher Ed reports:

An annual survey by the Pew Research Center on Americans’ views of national institutions, released this week, found a dramatic attitude shift on higher education among Republicans and people who lean Republican, with the change occurring across most demographic and ideological groups.

Two years ago, 54 percent of Republicans said colleges had a positive impact on the country’s direction, with 37 percent rating higher education negatively. That ratio shifted to 43 percent positive and 45 percent negative last year.

Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of conservative Republicans (65 percent) had a negative view of college, compared to 43 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans, who have a positive view.

Democrats and Democratic leaners, conversely, have a more positive view of higher education than in a previous poll, and this counterbalances the Republicans' negative turn. Seventy-two percent of Democrats hold a positive view of higher education in the new poll, as compared to 65 percent in 2010. Only 19 per cent of Democrats hold a negative view in the new poll.

Pew's analysis suggests that negative reporting on what goes on at colleges and universities from such outlets as Breitbart and Fox are a factor in the souring. These news outlets are convenient scapegoats. How about another reason?

Writing in Reason, J.D. Tucille suggests that people might be re-evaluating the value of a college education because colleges are exorbitantly expensive and dysfunctional. The current university system, Tucille goes on to say, may be based on an old model that has outlived its usefulness.

Tucille writes:

That flip [from a positive to a negative view] occurred during years when colleges and universities have frequently featured in wince-worthy headlines about ideological intolerance, politicized instruction, and eroding due process.

In recent weeks, Reed College, a private, liberal-arts college in Oregon, canceled classes after student protesters disrupted lectures over accusations that a humanities course is too Euro-centric. "A group of freshmen also got involved, complaining that their lecture had been taken over, and the conversation became a shouting match," according to Inside Higher Ed.

At almost the same time, Bret Weinstein accepted a $500,000 settlement and he and his wife, Heather Heying, resigned from their positions teaching biology at Evergreen State College, in Washington. Weinstein was essentially chased off campus by activists for objecting to racially charged student protests. At the height of the controversy last spring, the campus closed amidst threats of violence and thousands of dollars in vandalism.

Students infuriated over disagreement and dissent? Well, why not? Too many disciplines—and entire campuses--have been captured by ideology, making opposition increasingly rare and risky. In 2015, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt cautioned that "As psychology has become politically purified, its concepts have morphed to make them more useful to social justice advocates trying to prosecute and convict their opponents. This political shift poses a grave danger to the credibility of psychology."

Two years later, sociologist Musa al-Gharbi echoed that warning, writing, "The fact that many US universities are so out of step with broader society is also contributing to declining public confidence in them—and a growing inability among social researchers to relate to ordinary people."

That "out of step" quality bleeds out of the classroom and affects even students who might try to hide dissenting viewpoints, but still expect decent treatment.

Regarding the social atmosphere on U.S. campuses, Tucille addresses the Obama-era guidance for handling sexual misconduct allegations on college campuses. These 2011 guidelines, issued in the form of a "Dear Colleges" letter to college administrators from the Ed Department's Office of Civil Rights, pretty much eliminated civil rights for the accused. The guidelines set up what were in effect kangaroo courts and were so bad that 28 Harvard law professors issued a formal letter of protest.

Now, Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos has rescinded these guidelines in an effort to restore due process and civil rights on campus. And administrators are delighted, right? No, many are protesting the rollback. Tucille writes:

But then, why should due process find a nurturing home on college campuses when free speech is already so uncomfortable in such places? "A very significant fraction of students, across all categories, believe it is acceptable to silence (by shouting) a speaker they find offensive," reveals a poll of 1,500 undergraduate students released last week. That "significant fraction" consisted of 51 percent of students, by the way. For 53 percent of respondents, "their institution is expected to create an environment that shelters them from offensive views."

Ideological lockstep, intolerance, and kafkaesque proceedings don't come cheap, either. Tuition at Reed College this year is $53,900 plus fees, room, and board. Evergreen State College sells its brand of crazy at a more reasonable $6,700 per year for state residents and $24,000 for nonresidents.

But overall, the college experience is getting much more expensive even as it grows more off-putting. "Between 2011-12 and 2016-17, published tuition and fee prices rose by 9 percent in the public four-year sector, by 11 percent at public two-year colleges, and by 13 percent at private nonprofit four-year institutions, after adjusting for inflation," says the College Board. In constant dollars, tuition, fees, room, and board at private four-year colleges have risen from $16,670 in 1976-77 to $45,370 in 2016-17.

Universities still confer degrees, of course, which are valuable in obtaining a job, no small matter, but do they really educate the rising generation? More and more are providing "safe spaces," but do they really provide space for the kind of debate and iconoclasm that were once hallmarks of the liberal education?

Universities developed in medieval Europe and were a crowning achievement of western civilization. But it may be time to admit that the old model costs too much and no longer educates people. It could be time for innovation.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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