Hands off Higher Ed

Wall Street Journal

12 May 2007

Hillsdale, Mich. – From the first days of federal aid to higher education, instinct told us such aid would carry with it obligations that, in the words of Bill Buckley, “a free university ought not to undertake.”  Over the past 50 years a few private colleges and universities across America, including Hillsdale College, where I am president, have paid the price to keep their independence.

No part of the billions from federal taxpayers that go annually to our competitors comes to us.  In the past, our families were even prevented from taking the limited tax deductions available for college tuition.  We face the annual challenge of keeping up with the rapid growth of subsidies to higher education.

Today we watch with trepidation an attempt to establish federal control over all colleges and universities, including our campus.  Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wants to extend the testing and standards requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act to colleges.  The specific details of what these testing an standards would entail are unclear, but are likely to be determined by education department regulators over the next several months.

President Bush and Ms. Spellings have brought a new approach to education reform at the federal level.  They have good motives and a fair appraisal of the situation, at least in K-12 education.  But national standards and testing in higher education will only strengthen a bureaucracy that already plagues an otherwise highly competitive system.

Mr. Bush and Ms. Spellings will not be around long enough to write the rules of this new program.  They will leave behind them a much larger department, now armed with the tools to influence education to a much greater extent.  Ms. Spellings often uses the language of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in her speeches.  Since Sept. 11, 2001, spending on higher education has grown at rates greater than, say, the Defense Department.

National standards are unnecessary in higher education.  There are already plenty of accountability tools available to students and their parents – starting with the ability to pick up and go elsewhere.  There are more than 2,000 accredited four-year colleges in the country.  At Hillsdale we have long survived by attracting private capital and good students to our campus, so we are well aware that universities compete for students, donations and top-notch professors every year.  We also know that those institutions that allow their standards to slip will soon find their best students and faculty members migrating elsewhere.

These facts notwithstanding, Ms. Spelling’s efforts to impose nationalized college testing began in earnest last fall when her National Commission on the Future of Higher Education issued its final report and recommended the new testing mandate.  Republicans – had they maintained control of Congress – might have gone along.  Instead Ms. Spellings is now attempting to impose the mandate through the backdoor by forcing college accreditation agencies to start demanding that the tests be imposed.

The accrediting agencies are now almost 100 years old, and colleges use them to learn about themselves and to demonstrate competence by third-part testimony.  The accrediting agencies have for the most part respected the mission and purpose of the institutions they review.  But since the federal government became a major funder of colleges, the accrediting agencies are the gateway to that money.  This makes them, as much as the recipient colleges, creates of federal policy.

Several weeks of tense “negotiated rule-making” between the department and the accrediting agencies have just ended without agreement.  The department has invited a representative of the largest accrediting agency to step down from the consulting panel because of her recalcitrance.  Meanwhile the department threatens to impose common standards in accrediting without agreement from the accreditors.  This is the opposite of competition and diversity.

Reform is certainly needed in higher education.  But we should be discussing tax credits not uniform standards.  We should be thinking about tax-free saving accounts for college rather than rules and subsidies.

Here in south central Michigan, we are used to being recalcitrant.  Living by private resources for more than a century and a half, we have supported the principles of “civil and religious liberty and intelligent piety” that have been the core of our public mission since the founding day.  We succeed today by the requirement of a tough core curriculum, recruitment of a talented student body committed to an honor code, and by remembering the relationship between liberal education and a free society.

Mr. Arnn is the president of Hillsdale College.