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Alfonse D'Amato

It’s time for colleges to graduate to the 21st century

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The model of higher education today rests on a system created in the Middle Ages, when knowledge was highly concentrated in a few places and in a few hands. It has evolved only slowly over the centuries. And while that evolution has brought knowledge from the few to the many, it hasn’t kept pace with the rapidly changing world young people live in today.

Today’s colleges and universities operate in a time warp where higher education is over-expensive and under-performing. They are too often run by administrators who sit on huge untapped endowments, and who fail to control costs, allowing tuition to climb at two or three times the general rate of inflation. They seem to assume that the willingness of parents and students to pay ever-increasing tuition is boundless.

The same goes for too many of the professors who deliver their knowledge to students. It’s more than a bit ironic that the vast majority of college instructors tilt way to the left in their political and economic philosophy, but follow decidedly mercenary policies in how they expect to work and be paid. There are far too many examples of professors teaching 10 or 20 hours a week while raking in six-figure salaries. 

In the meantime, their students will graduate with five- or six-figure college debt that will burden them for decades. They’ll postpone starting a family or buying a house because their monthly school debt payments will eat up their paychecks. That’s not the “better life” a college education should have provided.

Politicians have responded to this spiral of high college costs and crushing student debt in predictable ways. For years they threw more and more money at colleges in the form of government student aid. Pell Grants, Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, aid, and subsidized student loans funneled billions of dollars to institutions of higher learning without conferring any relief on their consumers. The result: College costs climbed along with college graduates’ debt.

As this national student debt load has ballooned to over $1 trillion, today some politicians are proposing to forgive all or some of the huge debt with a massive federal bailout. It’s socialism come full circle, with government having helped fire up college costs and now “socializing” those costs with public dollars.

All of this misses the point that the way to reduce student debt is to bring college costs under control. Some colleges are finally catching on that $50,000-a-year tuitions are indefensible. They’re looking for ways to freeze or even roll back those tuitions. They’re embracing rather than rejecting online learning. They’re even holding their administrators and professors more accountable for the totality of their performance, including how their students fare after they’ve graduated.

A good example of this more accountable approach has been pursued by Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University. Daniels was the governor of Indiana before he became a college president, and he devised innovative ways of running his state that kept taxes down while delivering services in cost-effective ways. That may be why he was a good fit to run a university.

At Purdue, Daniels has imposed financial discipline and academic accountability. When he became its president, he took a voluntary pay cut, and tied his future salary to “performance-based evaluation.” He has also frozen Purdue’s tuition the years he’s been there, and substantially reduced the university’s operating expenses.

Under Daniels, Purdue has fully embraced online learning, boosting the ability of Purdue students to take advantage of “distance learning” (which students at every level, starting with elementary school, are learning now, amid the coronavirus pandemic). And the university established an innovative high-school-to-college program that allows under-privileged high school students from minority communities to take a faster track to college.

More colleges ought to follow Purdue’s lead, which recognizes that these institutions should enable different paths to a degree. Not everyone needs a four-year degree in subjects that offer little future employment opportunities. Many students would be far better off with technical college training that prepares them for jobs that actually need filling.

To effectively support college education, let’s focus on reducing college costs and making that education more relevant. I’m all for making public higher education as low-cost or no-cost as possible. States as politically disparate as Florida and New York are making great strides in that direction. But I also think the leaders of our private colleges and universities need to come down from their ivory towers and show some empathy for their customers, too. Let’s bring higher education into the 21st century.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.