Obama’s Student-Aid Plan Could Cripple Liberal Arts Programs


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The Obama administration has announced its proposal for addressing the higher-education bubble and the student-debt crisis — and it’s not entirely crazy.

The fact is that college costs have vastly exceeded the rate of inflation for at least the past 30 years, to the point where annual expenses at some universities exceed $50,000. Even lower-cost state universities are raising tuition as local legislatures cut their subsidies.

Much of the money raised through these rising costs is not spent on teaching or necessary services. While the shrinking aristocracy of tenured professors goes on producing mostly obscure research, teaching at many colleges is relegated to the serfs: underpaid adjunct teachers and struggling graduate students. But universities are indeed spending tens of millions on ever-more ambitious “diversity” programs, luxurious student rec centers and (at more than a dozen leading schools) on funding students’ sex-change operations.

Meanwhile, American college students are going ever deeper into debt to the U.S. government: The average recent grad emerged owing $26,000 — and, according to Forbes, 10% of students owe more than $40,000.

Given the tight environment for jobs and the scant prospects for economic growth in most industries, few students will get jobs whose annual salaries even equal their load of debt. How exactly are young Americans supposed to get married, buy homes or have children when both spouses enter a marriage with this kind of debt? The situation is clearly unsustainable.

To its credit, Obama’s proposal addresses this crisis at its source: the abundant student financial aid that has allowed so many colleges to inflate their spending and raise their prices. His new proposal, according to an Aug. 22 article in The New York Times, is “to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates and the percentage of lower-income students who attend. The ratings would compare colleges against their peer institutions.” Schools that underperform by these criteria would presumably lose their access to federal student aid.

There’s a commonsense level on which this proposal seems sound: When we use taxpayers’ money to subsidize the individual educational decisions made by a student, we do so because we see it serving some public good; we are investing in a citizen whom we hope will be productive, who will pay more in taxes than he otherwise might have. We also want to encourage a certain meritocracy, to make sure that really talented students from low-income backgrounds can maximize their potential — for the benefit of society as a whole.

These kinds of outcomes can be tested using information that the government will have no trouble collecting: Obama’s program could enable federal education officials to check the annual incomes (based on tax returns) of graduates of various schools. It’s easy to know how wealthy they have become. Likewise, it’s simple to see what percentage of students at a school come from low-income backgrounds.

But there’s another purpose of higher education that may well get lost in this reform: Many fields taught at modern universities have value that is impossible to quantify — and whose graduates are less likely to earn high salaries than those who study finance, math or engineering.

I mean the liberal arts, including literature, history, art, philosophy and other subject matters once considered as essential knowledge for a fully educated person. If the Obama reform indeed makes federal financial aid hinge on the salaries of a given college’s graduates, that will exert pressure on schools to scant already-threatened programs in such liberal arts in favor of ever-more “practical” fields of study.

Given our financial constraints, such a choice may be inevitable. We don’t like to admit it, but the traditional liberal arts curriculum that cultural traditionalists venerate was never intended for mass education. Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote The Idea of a University with a very specific social class in mind: It was a program for educating “gentlemen” with some measure of inherited wealth who could afford to delay practical training in any specific profession. Put bluntly, since their development in the ancient world, the liberal arts have always worked as a school of civility for a country’s leadership class, to guarantee that the people who make the big decisions in society have a broader vision of life than utilitarian studies or their inherited cultural biases can provide.

An admirable populist impulse led Americans to try extending this kind of education to anyone who wanted it. Thus what followed was the mass expansion of state universities after World War II, many of them equipped with core curricula aimed at offering solid liberal arts educations to all. It only took 30 years for this experiment to fail, for schools to begin dismantling their core curricula and lowering their standards, as it became clear that average students with moderate talents did not much benefit from — and, frankly, did not want — a preparation in the liberal arts.

But even as schools made liberal arts study optional, they did maintain healthy programs in these traditional fields of study — partly to train future teachers and partly out of a kind of cultural bad conscience. Could you really call yourself a college if you didn’t even offer Latin and Greek?

So the liberal arts survive today, at some schools serving largely as window dressing. The Obama plan seems designed to strip away much of this window dressing and goad schools to focus even more relentlessly on the bottom line.

A number of private colleges have arisen in the past 30 years to preserve the traditional liberal arts, many of them schools with strong religious missions. Some of them teach by the “Great Books” method, studying only the “classic” works of Western culture — with very little practical, pre-professional training at all. These schools lack the endowments of more established liberal arts colleges (i.e., Harvard, Wesleyan, Georgetown), so they are largely funded by student tuition. What is more, most of their students come from less-than-privileged backgrounds. Such schools have been striving to pass on an essentially aristocratic mode of learning to students from middle- or lower-class backgrounds.

How have they managed it? With a few noble exceptions, they have done so by accepting large amounts of federal financial aid — both grants and, more problematically, loans. Their graduates emerge with an admirably high-minded attitude toward learning and heavy burdens of debt.

These schools, whose graduates often pursue careers as teachers, activists or clergy and religious, will not fare well under the Obama proposals. We may well see many of these small colleges close — unless they can imitate independent colleges such as Hillsdale in Michigan and Christendom in Virginia, which refuse federal aid and rely on fundraising.

Those of us who care about preserving the liberal arts will have to find new ways to pass that heritage on — perhaps through the growing number of classically based high-school programs (some of them offered as home schools) that teach the liberal arts to students while they are younger, so they can go on to enroll at their local state universities.

To help prepare students for this reality, which we saw coming, the guide I edit, Choosing the Right College, has looked at affordable educational options in each of the 50 states and compiled them in a special section called “Blue-Collar Ivies.”

In it, we lay out the best professors, programs, majors, honors options and living arrangements at state and other low-priced schools. There are surprising pockets of excellence at even the most massive, pragmatic state universities; you just need to know how to find them. Finding them at a price that won’t trap you in lifelong debt is an urgent necessity for millions.

John Zmirak, Ph.D., is editor of Choosing the Right College and CollegeGuide.org