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I Gotta Right to My Illusions Changing The Supreme Court: The Real Problem

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Big Ed Fights Back Against For-Profit Colleges

by Christopher Chantrill
October 02, 2005 at 2:35 pm


IT’S back-to-school time so it must be time to view with alarm the shocking state of our nation’s colleges.

Last week in The Weekly Standard, retired conservative foundation director James Piereson took a look at the threat to the nation posed by “The Left University.”

In “Ivory Cower” at OpinionJournal.com Victor David Hanson rehearsed a few recent university administrative scandals for The Wall Street Journal’s conservative edit-page folks.

And not to be outdone by the edit page, the Journal’s liberal news side carried an article by John Hechinger on September 30, 2005 about a fight between upstart for-profit colleges and the traditional non-profit universities. The for-profit sector that used to concentrate on “auto repair and massage therapy” is now is expanding into “business and other courses of study” traditionally the preserve of the non-profit and state universities.

How are the old-line universities competing? By improving their course offerings? Oh no. They are playing hardball with their new competitors and refusing to grant students credit for studies at the for-profit schools.

Two can play at that game. The for-profits are retaliating by backing a bill in Congress to force the old-line schools to justify their actions when they reject academic credits from the upstart schools. But “traditional schools say it would be too expensive to evaluate each transcript from a for-profit school to see if it passes muster.” The bill means that for-profit schools “are buying legislation for their otherwise suspect goods.” Those are the words of Barmak Nassiran from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

There are no damaged goods on offer at the old-line schools; they have a system of accreditation. If you earn a degree at an accredited university then your degree and course work will be honored by other accredited universities. The system evaluates “colleges on measures like the degrees held by faculty, professor-to-student ratios, and the number of books in school libraries,” i.e., factor inputs. So when for-profit Florida Metropolitan University applied for accreditation from a regional non-profit accreditation association, it got back a letter citing their input deficiencies: too many part-time faculty, not enough credentials, and insufficient “size and staffing” of the library.

Unable to compete on the credentials front the for-profits have started their own “so-called national accrediting bodies.” They “focus more on schools’ job placement records than on academic credentials.”

The accreditation system of the non-profit universities would be great if all those factor inputs were deployed for the benefit of students. But that is not the case, as James Piereson reminds us. Right from the very start of the research university project in the nineteenth century, the university has always “placed the faculty rather than students... at the center of the enterprise.” The factor inputs are not there for students. They are intended for the use of faculty.

Every report from the academy confirms this. According to Harvard graduate Ross Douthat’s “The Truth about Harvard” in The Atlantic of March 2005, it’s hard to get into Harvard. But once the student gets in the door he realizes “No, this is easy.” Since the students don’t matter, Harvard gives them the B plusses they need to get into graduate school and gets back to research.

In engineering, the course work is not easy, and students suffer. At TechcentralStation Douglas Kern soon changed his major when he found the courses for Chemical Engineering too challenging. Perhaps his difficulties had something to do with the teaching methods in math class. Each day the instructor, a twenty-something teaching assistant, worked through the previous day’s problem set without explanation, announced the pages in the textbook for the next problem set, worked a sample problem, gave the day’s problem assignment, and then dismissed the class. Twenty-five minutes, start to finish.

The traditional universities are right to declare war on the upstart for-profits. A profit-driven business model for higher education could end up wrecking the cozy producer cartel they have operated for over a century. The modest bill before Congress that makes the universities play ball over the transfer of credits is just a skirmish that could develop into a national battle over education.

And like any war, we cannot know where it would end.

In the United States we have no clue, not the slightest notion of what the education system would look like if the rent-seekers were relieved of their rents and the producer cartels of professors, teachers, administrators, and maintenance staff were reduced to powerless talking shops. Education in the United States has been cartelized, centralized, and politicized since the days of the Whig Party and Horace Mann in the 1840s. Market-driven education? It’s unthinkable.

But if you believe in freedom, why not fight for freedom of education?

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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