American universities are fantastically dysfunctional, so much so that a novel federal response—one that includes bureaucracy, regulation, and nationalization—is in order. Universities’ abuse of students’ lives, taxpayers’ money, and society’s trust means that no other response, and certainly no panache about “academic freedom” or “free markets,” would be adequate.
Meanwhile, professors crank out worthless “research” on all of our dimes. More than 2,000 papers have been published based on the totally fantastical RCP 8.5 climate change scenario, for example. A cursory search of the University of Chicago’s library webpage reveals that there exist 15,889 academic papers about the poetry of Emily Dickinson, roughly nine for every poem she wrote in her lifetime. Dickinson’s poems are depressingenoughontheirown—but at least people actually read them.
University misbehavior has made it harder for young Americans to form families, with tragic consequences. Marriage rates have inched down as student loan balances have inched up over the past 15 years. And fertility is on the decline: many young people want to have children but are not doing so because of economic precarity.
The problem: AWOL accreditors
In theory, none of this should be happening thanks to accreditors, quasi-governmental entities that exist to protect the public from shoddy schools. But in practice, accreditors function more like weightlifting clubs than hard-nosed enforcers, issuing calls for self-improvement and cheering their members on. Theirguidelines are full of words like “self-regulation” and “peer review,” sprinkled with the occasional bureaucratic mandate or vague quality guideline.
Profession-specific accreditors, such as the American Bar Association (ABA) and the Licensing Committee on Medical Education (LCME), are even worse—they are downright protectionist. ABA accreditation guidelines use the word “tenure” 23 times but only mention the word “debt” three times; two of those usages are followed by the word “counselor.”
Apparently, the ABA cares more about protecting the jobs of debt counselors than preventing schools from issuing unjustified debt in the first place.
Nobody said it was easy . . . but does it have to be this hard?
Congress or a determined president could curtail universities’ most egregious abuses with a few simple acts.
The Department of Education, for one, could force accreditors to do their jobs. It could also skip the middleman and cut off funds to underperforming schools directly on the basis of student loan default rates and graduation rates.
The strongest proponent of this is former President Donald Trump. He wants to “fire the radical left accreditors that have allowed our colleges to become dominated by Marxists, maniacs, and lunatics” and also fire the university bureaucrats who send tuition “absolutely exploding while academics have been obsessed with indoctrinating America’s youth.”
Trump’s plan even includes “implementing college entrance and exit exams to ensure students are actually learning,” indicating that Trump understands universities are more focused on status than education, notwithstanding all their bluster about “meritocracy.”
Compare Trump to Governor Ron DeSantis (R., Florida). DeSantis is not a real education reformer; he is a next-generation RINO. Like the first generation of RINOs, who were corporate hacks at heart and pro-life pretenders during election years, DeSantis is a corporate hack at heart who is only putatively anti-woke.
Red Florida may make headlines, but essentially zero DEI bureaucrats and kindergarten teachers have actually been fired by DeSantis. The Florida Man-turned-governor is not keen to make heads roll because he wants to be president, and that means he has to kiss up to The Very Serious People who actually run our country, a.k.a. The Blob.
The Blob may fuss about DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill or his feud with Disney, but as long as DeSantis is the holding down the Overton Window’s right flank, no real revolution is coming for The (University) Blob. And that’s just how they like it.
State capacity for change
The best long-term solution to America’s university woes is a total about-face: Congress should replace the entire accreditation system with a regulatory commission, perhaps patterned after the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Federal Trade Commission. This new commission should impose a full suite of transparency requirements and fines for noncompliance.
Tuition hikes should be regulated just like utility rate hikes, with regulators requiring universities to show adequate justification before burdening students with even higher fees. That model could stop tuition growth from outpacing inflation for the first time in 40 years, and also stop me from daydreaming about not having to pay $70,000 for law school next year.
Professional accreditors are even worse than university-wide accreditors and may require full-blown nationalization. For example, the Licensing Committee for Medical Education (LCME) is downright evil. LCME’s excessive requirements have created an ongoing, artificial doctor shortage in the U.S., pushing physician salaries to unsustainable heights while draining hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. healthcare system. Next time you see a doctor driving his Tesla out of the hospital parking lot, think of the sick grandmas who got bilked out of their retirement money to pay for it—and know that the relatively obscure LCME is largely to blame.
The price of nationalizing a few malevolent accreditors would be less than $1 billion, chump change in Washington. The potential upside is massive: Imagine a world where doctors have appointments available, therapists don’t spew gibberish, and regular people get legal help without shelling out $500 an hour to some guy in a suit.
Universities and their supposed watchdogs are failing students and society. Government officials in Washington control the purse strings, the kill switch, the federal dollars that grease the engine and keep the system going. Let’s hope they learn to use their power.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.
Ben, who is a Thinker editor, is a law student with a background in microbiology, management consulting, and politics. He is from Minnesota and did a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines. In his spare time, he enjoys adventure sports and radical books. He tweets at @gogglesmammoth.