In my last post, I stated a dozen simple propositions summarizing my personal principles and preferences in the matter of US higher education policy. I now begin the process of elaborating upon each of those propositions, beginning with the first one …

Proposition #1:

Education for the common good should be a societal priority but not a government bureaucracy.


Whose idea was this in the first place?

You likely know that the impetus for American tertiary education pre-dates the founding of our Republic. New England colonies sought to emulate the European societies from whence they came by ensuring that professions such as law, medicine, government and, above all, clergy would possess character and intellectual capacities that would nourish society’s spiritual welfare and enhance its leadership resources.

Such aspirations are clear in Harvard University’s founding documents:

After God had carried us safe to New England … one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust … [from New England’s First Fruits, 1640]

Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, and therefore to lay Christ at the bottom as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. [from Harvard College Laws, 1642]

Other Colonial colleges, all of them emanating from ecclesial or civic—but not governmental—initiative, were born of similar founding aspirations and characteristics. They operated on the implicit premise that families and churches are basic and essential social units.

Here they come to save the day

Fast forward to Civil War-Era America. Westward expansion, emancipation, and social reconstruction called for advanced technological capacities (agriculture, engineering). Thus, the Morrill Act (1862) offered—not merely civic, but for the first time governmental—incentives in the form of land grants to states and territories that would take up the challenge. It is worth noting that governmental action took the form of incentives, not entitlements, and required “skin in the game” on the part of participating states.

The post-Civil War era saw dual track—private and state—expansion of postsecondary education across the national landscape.

Technocrat tsunami

The next big American postsecondary wave followed World War II and has continued up to the present. Beginning with the GI Bill (1944) and continuing with the Higher Education Act (1965) and its most famous provision, the Pell Grant. It is worth noting that, like the Morrill act, these initiatives of the federal government were prompted by society’s interest in advancing America’s technological and economic progress (not enhancing society’s character and intellectual capacities). Each initiative, moreover, is marked by a tinge of redress: reward for the sacrifices of wartime military service; mitigation of economic disparity; compensation for access-impeding racial discrimination. For the first time, beneficiaries were regarded to be “entitled” and there were few individual strings or institutional responsibilities (other than non-fraudulent distribution) attached to the entitlement.

To quote Gomer Pyle: Surprise, surprise! Government largesse and the inevitable accompanying need for fraud prevention and accountability for ROI (hmmm, I wonder if Congress would open to some ROI assessment regime applied to its performance…) required the creation in 1979 of a new Cabinet-Level Department of Education. In less than four decades, USDE has extended its reach but educational nirvana has eluded its grasp. As participation in postsecondary education has proliferated, public confidence and satisfaction are sagging.

Wrong ends, wrong means

I worry about the current state of higher education affairs from the standpoint of both ends and means.

When it comes to ends, we should not assume that a secular and pluralistic government will be able to foster character and intellectual capacity-building in the same way it fuels technological and economic capacity-building. Our society needs a deeper reservoir of character and intellectual capacity far more urgently, in my judgment, than it requires greater economic and technological resources. More about that in my next post.

When it comes to means, I believe:

  • We would do well to maintain the GI Bill and Pell Grant principle of choice (aid is awarded to the student, not the institution, regardless of whether independently or governmentally owned).
  • We would do well to maintain the Pell Grant principle of helping to eliminate economic barriers to access and foster the expansion of college choices based upon merit and mission fit.
  • There needs to be a serious reset from the US Department of Education’s inexorable “mission creep.”
  • Federal bureaucracy is a blunt instrument by which to arbitrate educational effectiveness. Policymakers should abandon their attempts to discredit and displace accreditors’ lead role in assessing and ensuring educational quality and serving as “gatekeepers” of student financial aid eligibility.
  • America’s higher education diversity and innovation are the envy of the world. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

I could go on … in fact I intend to. Next time, we’ll take a look at my second higher education policy proposition: Individual and societal flourishing encompass far more than economic prosperity.

Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …

This court ruling is downright disturbing

The US Supreme Court’s so-called Hosanna Tabor “ministerial exception” ruling a couple of years ago seemed to affirm a solid constitutional basis for Christian educational institutions that require their employees to affirm and conform to biblical belief and conduct. Until a recent ruling against Northwest Christian (AoG) University by Oregon federal judge Ann Aiken. Aiken rejected Northwest University’s assertion of constitutional religious prerogative to stipulate that all members of its faculty must conform to biblical doctrine and lifestyle standards and, instead, ruled in favor of a fired female faculty member who bore a child out of wedlock and refused to marry the father or resign under terms of the college’s biblical community covenant.

Restoring the soul of the university 

You may want to be aware of this new book authored by a team of Baylor University educators. Although its relevance may be only tangential to your context, its assertion that all higher education faculty and administrators must learn to speak and reason theologically pertains deeply to our small sector of postsecondary education.