College Education as Consumer Fraud?

The college diploma: not worth what it used to be.

by James A. Bacon

I’ve long warned that Virginia’s colleges and universities would pay a price for their embrace of leftist radicalism, intolerance of non-conforming views, and hostility to reasoned debate. Why, I asked, would parents spend tens of thousands of dollars yearly to send off their children to be indoctrinated with values and world views antithetical to their own? Here in Virginia, we’re seeing the first signs of resistance to campus radicalism from the alumni of Washington & Lee University and the University of Virginia. Now there are signs of the counter-revolution going national.

In July, President Trump asked the Treasury Department to re-examine the tax-exempt status of colleges and universities, claiming that “too many” institutions are driven by “radical left indoctrination.” It’s a shame that Trump got involved because he polarizes everything he touches. Half the nation will automatically oppose anything he supports. But he was tapping into a very real issue. There is a deep and increasing resentment of higher-ed in America today.

In the latest sign of the times, Ronald Kessler, a Trump-friendly journalist, has linked campus radicalism and college affordability, hitting themes that Reed Fawell, Jim Sherlock, and I have been hammering on for some time now. In an opinion piece he disseminated by email, “Colleges Are Consumer Frauds,” he touches upon arguments that Bacon’s Rebellion readers will find familiar.

While he is at it, Mr. Trump should also ask the Federal Trade Commission to review whether individual liberal arts colleges that promote that one-sided ideology are engaging in consumer fraud.

College catalogs are as enticing as brochures for shiny new cars. They promise intellectual stimulation, critical thinking and “the free exchange of ideas,” as Yale University’s mission statement says. But like come-ons for underwater land, the claims of liberal arts colleges are bogus.

The ancient Greeks began the liberal arts tradition. They advocated systematic reflection and a search for truth. The term liberal arts itself comes from the Latin word liber, meaning free.

Today, too many colleges impose rigid conformity. Rather than encouraging students to find the truth for themselves, they propagandize, invariably with a far-left cast. Rather than encouraging open-mindedness, they promote stereotypical thinking and adherence to preconceptions and dogma. Students fear challenging their leftist professors and failing a course.

In short, a college education—at roughly $50,000 to $60,000 a year—has become a consumer fraud. …

The FTC should crack down on colleges that falsely promote themselves as offering a genuine liberal arts education when they are in fact propaganda mills for the far left.

We’re already seeing something akin to a “defund the universities” movement building among older, conservative alumni. (I haven’t seen anyone use that precise phrase yet, but it captures the gist of emerging zeitgeist.) In the middle class, we’re also seeing a reassessment of whether a college degree, valued more as a workplace-credentialing device than any skills gained from a liberal arts education, is worth the high price. Accelerating this reappraisal, millions of students exposed to online learning during the COVID-19 epidemic surely must be wondering if expensive “in person” education really adds much educational value.

Virginia’s system of public colleges and universities have long been a source of pride in the commonwealth. But some institutions are sowing the seeds of their destruction. They cannot afford to alienate half the population through their incubation of radical politics and intolerance. People will seek alternatives.

Those alternatives are scarce right now — online learning may substitute for lecture-hall survey classes but not for smaller, more advanced classes — and their is tremendous inertia built into the system. But in a free economy, entrepreneurs will find ways to meet pent-up demand. In the short term, we might see an uptick in interest in culturally conservative institutions like Liberty University, Regent University and Christendom College here in Virginia. In a much more powerful force over the longer term, investment capital will flow to upgrading the online-learning experience.

Advances in technology favor the innovators, not lumbering colossi wedded to the pedagogical status quo, encumbered by massive bureaucracies, and strait-jacketed by the social-justice paradigm. There is no reason why higher education can’t be liberated from the universities themselves, be they public, private, online, in-person, radical or conservative. One day, I predict, free-lance teacher/entrepreneurs will emerge to inculcate discrete bodies of knowledge one course at a time, and accrediting organizations will be created to affirm their educational value.

The campus radicals have reached their high tide. But their declining value proposition to students (and parents who pay their tuition) is becoming increasingly visible to all. In the digital era, they will be disintermediated eventually.