Many of us who work in higher education are aware that we are working on boats that are not only “academically adrift,” but which have been leaking furiously for years. Given the demographics and the broader economic devastation wrought by our foolish response to the Coronavirus, it is unlikely that even a bailout will allow for much more than the playing of a song as the academic ships sink.

Many of us who work in higher education are aware that we are working on boats that are not only “academically adrift” (as one exposé of higher education was titled), but which have been leaking furiously for years. Many universities and colleges have been struggling to meet enrollment numbers for a number of years despite the fact that a number of institutions have been closing every year. The late Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School predicted that around half of all American four-year colleges and universities would close by 2030. This expected destruction of the higher-ed landscape is frankly overdetermined. The reasons include: a declining American birthrate (another 35-year low was announced this past week) leading to fewer students of college age; rising costs of higher education to those who attend it and are burdened by loans that cannot be resolved even in bankruptcy ordinarily; administrative bloat and costly but unnecessary amenities that seem to proliferate on most campuses; very poor financial situations at a great many schools on account of the previous reason; the lack of quality instruction at many of these institutions; the political and religious bias of faculties and administrative units that lean left and secular—and have little understanding or sympathy for those outside; those who have been in it can go on at length. Many were ready for the big blow to hit in six years or so because the 2008 recession caused an enormous drop in already sinking birthrates that meant even fewer 18-year-olds by 2026.

But the Coronavirus, or rather the response to it on the part of state governments and universities—their decisions to close their campuses this spring, summer, and for some institutions even the fall semester—means not only that most campuses lost millions of dollars this spring but that their prospects for recouping any money in the fall are bad at best. Many seniors in high school are talking about gap years, especially if they are faced with the prospect of some sort of online or hybrid program in the fall—or some sort of “socially distanced” experience of campus life. Many current college students who did not sign up for an online experience have not fared well, despite institutions’ attempts to ameliorate the situation by switching from an A to F scale to a Pass-Fail scenario. My wife and I are both university advisers for freshmen and sophomores who have not declared majors yet at our institution. We have both heard students say that they will simply take a gap year if there is not regular campus life in the fall. Because of the economic fallout of our society’s response to Covid-19, other students have told us that they won’t be able to come back in the fall if they can’t find a job this summer. It is not unreasonable to predict, as Richard Vedder has done, that 500 to 1,000 schools could close in the next year.[1]

In the first round of federal Coronavirus aid, higher education was allotted about $14 billion—not a large sum in that gargantuan package. While some very small institutions actually came out ahead with sums of around $500 thousand, for the most part the money for larger schools had the effect of a band-aid more than a solution. As Dr. Vedder observes:

over a billion dollars goes to politically favored schools, especially historically black colleges and universities serving a tiny portion of students. And a large part of the rest is allocated for assistance to low income students. I suspect most schools will not see truly discretionary assistance that amounts to more than one percent of annual spending. State governments are getting additional federal aid which might lead to some additional relief.

While others predict only 240 to 340 institutions closing, this would still be a major blow.[2] Thus the cry has gone out for more aid for higher education. If that happens, however, what should be the goal of such aid? The National Association of Scholars (NAS), an interdisciplinary academic group that has long advocated reforms of higher education, has recently released a set of recommendations in a report titled Critical Care.[3] As an act of full disclosure, I have been a member of the NAS for a number of years but had no hand in preparing this document.

The report divides their recommendations into six sections: 1) “Basic Economic Priorities”; 2) “Put Students First”; 3) “Supporting American Principles”; 4) “American National Interest”; 5) “Compliance”; and 6) “State Higher Education Policy.” The longest and perhaps most important one is the first, in which the report argues, among other things, that any future bailouts should not include the richest one hundred schools in the nation; large universities should be required to cut administrative overhead by fifty percent to receive any money (smaller schools by ten percent); elimination or reform of community-service study programs that are often simply means of doing political (usually progressive) activism in order to be eligible for funds; bonus relief funds should be given to institutions that have kept their tuition down; and institutions that award credit for remedial instruction should not be eligible for bailout funds.

While the last-named suggestion makes it sound as if Critical Care is hopelessly elitist, some of the other recommendations in this section show that the document is committed to helping not only traditional four-year programs but also community colleges (for which they want payroll support for professors) and vocational education (payroll support for faculty and targeted assistance for apprenticeships). In addition, the report advocates equity for aid to exclusively online programs.

While I am skeptical of online education in the traditional liberal arts except at the graduate level and under certain conditions, the fact is that many institutions are really doing “instruction” in skills anyway. I think most of these suggestions are exactly right in terms of their wisdom. They are just as much a part of putting students first as are the suggestions in the second section, which advocates a freezing of loan repayments, including interest accrual, until January 1, 2021, as well as a requirement that institutions taking bailout funds establish a loan buyback program and accept 30% of the responsibility for loan defaults. Making institutions put some skin in the game is a necessary part of righting higher education. So too is their requirement that students who receive funding actually demonstrate financial need and keep their grades at a 2.5 grade point average.

While a wide variety of faculty of all persuasions will find a great many of the first two sections appealing, the third and fourth sections are no doubt more polarizing since they are asking for procedures and policies that have been opposed as much by faculty as by many administrators. Supporting American Principles seeks to require institutions to guarantee due process for all campus adjudication procedures and also to guarantee intellectual freedom for students, faculty, and visiting speakers. No more hecklers’ vetoes achieved by threats of violence to which campuses charge student groups exorbitant fees to provide security. Critical Care also wants public colleges and universities receiving bailout funds to be premised on acceptance of First Amendment and intellectual diversity protections into their by-laws.

The “American National Interest” section seeks limits on the acceptance of foreign students, an elimination of international branch campuses and Confucius Institutes on campus, and a prohibition of “sanctuary campus” policies and an agreement to cooperate with immigration law and enforcement in order to receive bailout funds. On the positive side, the document seeks “payroll support for faculty and graduate students in disciplines critical to national security.”

In both of these sections, the suggestions will be opposed by and large by most faculty and administrators at the vast majority of universities and colleges who will perceive them as “conservative” policies that limit the freedom of institutions to act as they wish. It would be a daring act for any Congress or Department of Education to go with the first two sets of changes; it would take a spine of steel to demand the second two. That doesn’t mean that they are not by-and-large worthy suggestions. It is only to note the political realities attendant on any attempts to change higher education.

One also wonders if many institutions would even take the money if such requirements were made for them to be bailed out. As long as there is any money coming in, administrators are going to be the last ones to get the sack. Every institution can compare itself to some other institution and find that its administrative overhead is comparatively lean. And for all those who do have a “progressive” agenda at their institutions, the idea of having universities where religious and politically conservative voices are tolerated or even encouraged is a non-starter. So too the idea that universities might have any duties to the nation. Many in higher education think of themselves as citizens of the world, or perhaps of a republic of letters. Too many groups in higher education from departments to academic units to colleges themselves decide that survival of their own institution was not worth allowing their ideological enemies to triumph. If going broke is the cost of going woke, “so be it” is the cry. Fiat iustitia pereat mundus only needs the adjective “social” (iustitia socialis!) to be added to describe those who are calling the shots at too many institutions these days.

Of course many don’t believe that they will have to see their worlds perish. A recent study by the Department of Education found that U.S. colleges have accepted but not disclosed over $6 billion in donations from adversarial nations, of which China is the first but not the only big donor.[4] A one-time infusion of government money might not be as important as continuing infusions that would keep the sinking institutions afloat for a little while longer.

Critical Care’s suggestions are generally right on the money, though I would love to have seen some demands about building on campuses. Too many institutions accept money from donors for buildings without much thought as to the lighting and upkeep of the buildings. Additionally, those who receive funding should be required to demonstrate that a large majority of their teaching be done by full-time employees and that all “faculty” actually teach a certain number of classes. Universities who preach “social justice” for everybody else tend to lower costs by hiring adjunct professors to make up for the cost of not only administrators but academic superstars who treat the suggestion that they do something in the classroom as if HR had requested they kiss lepers. They justify the definition of a university offered by the poet John Ciardi: “what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students.”

Much of the fleet is sinking. Given the demographics and the broader economic devastation wrought by our foolish response to the Coronavirus, egged on by many of those same faculty and administrators who will now lose their perches, it is unlikely that even a bailout will allow for much more than the playing of a song (“Nearer My God to Thee” is unlikely in this case) as their academic ships sink. A bailout under the conditions suggested is also unlikely. So why should the NAS bother? The reasons are simple. First, telling the truth is the first obligation of freedom. Second, while many institutions will be destroyed, we need to have laid out for future institution builders and policy makers a list of things to do—yes, an “agenda”—to make colleges and universities seaworthy when these academic vessels are rebuilt, come under different captains, or get entirely new crews.

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[1] Richard Vedder, “Why the Coronavirus Will Kill 500-1,000 Colleges,” Forbes, April 7, 2020.

[2] Emma Whitford, “Tuition Discount Rates Trend Upward,” Inside Higher Ed, May 21, 2020.

[3] Peter W. Wood, Rachelle Peterson, David Randall, Glenn Ricketts et al., Critical Care: Policy Recommendations to Restore American Higher Education after the 2020 Coronavirus Shutdown (New York, NY: National Association of Scholars, April 2020).

[4] Zachary Evans, “U.S. Colleges Have Accepted $6 Billion in Undisclosed Donations from Foreign Governments, DOE Probe Finds,” National Review, May 22, 2020.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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