American universities were once welcome spaces for intellectual exploration and civil debate. Unfortunately, we have exchanged intellectual spaces for “safe spaces,” and we are worse off for it.
Indeed, the culture on college campuses today is so hostile toward views outside of the leftist status quo that students and administrators alike have taken drastic measures to silence the speech of others. Whether it is shouting down other students or physically blocking conservative speakers from entering their campus, it is clear that many of our universities no longer welcome contrarian viewpoints.
There is plenty of blame to go around for how we got here. But one underlying issue plagues our university system: Colleges are insulated from market pressures that would drive up quality and drive out bad ideas.
The assault on free speech is indicative of the intellectual decay of our university systems. It makes sense that universities that teach courses such as “Tree Climbing,” “Kanye Versus Everybody” and “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” are failing to instill important American values in their students.
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The prevalence of free-speech zones on college campuses is impossible to reconcile with American democracy. These zones, typically the size of about three parking spaces and requiring prior registration with the university to use, violate the most fundamental rights of students. Additionally, this treatment shames students out of their beliefs and shuts down meaningful debate in the name of political correctness.
We clearly need significant reforms to get our colleges back on track, yet little is done. There are significant barriers in place that maintain the status quo, protecting long-standing universities from competing with new education models.
Many for-profit institutions offer a desirable alternative for students who do not want to take the lengthy and expensive bachelor’s degree route. A student may also see a for-profit education as a way to focus on a specific skill set and skip the “Tree Climbing” class.
Our outdated accreditation system is also to blame. The current process enables the Department of Education to choose accreditors, who then distribute federal dollars to the schools they accredit. This ensures that the federal government remains intimately involved in deciding which schools are desirable and which are not.
The free market is a much better barometer of quality. If burdensome regulations were removed and the business community got involved in the accreditation process, as the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act proposes, colleges would be forced to compete for students against all education models out there. When faced with the option of a high-quality online school, a vocational school or a four-year bachelor’s degree, each of those institutions would compete to offer students the best skill set at the best price.
Additionally, collaboration between the business community and the academic community would encourage schools to gear their curriculums towards marketable skills needed for the workforce. Unfortunately, the current regulatory environment has made it difficult for these alternative schools to thrive.
Today, universities do not face these market pressures to improve quality. As a result, universities across the country more or less look the same. NYU may have a better biology curriculum than Berkeley, yet the institutional frameworks and campus cultures of these two institutions look remarkably similar.
Unfortunately, it appears that colleges and universities won’t shape up unless they fear they will lose students. Reducing federal intervention in higher education could spark the growth of nontraditional education options to challenge the status quo.
Mary Clare Amselem is a policy analyst in the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.