The term “politically correct” entered the American vocabulary in 1991, following a widely discussed New York magazine cover story on higher education, and has become applicable beyond the campus. The Associated Press, for example, announced this year the banishment of “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook. One linguist suggested “unauthorized migrant” as a more respectful substitute. Jay Leno, who is not politically correct, preferred “undocumented Democrats.” Perhaps “joggers without borders” will catch on.
Still, the university remains the natural habitat, redoubt, and headquarters for political correctness. The predicate for the phenomenon was the democratization of higher education in the 20th century. In 1910, according to the Department of Education, 2.7% of Americans above the age of 25 had received a bachelor’s degree. (Only 13.5% had completed high school.) The jobs for which a college education was optional used to include president of the United States: eight of the first 24, from George Washington through William McKinley, never attended college. Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, every president except Harry Truman has earned a bachelor’s degree. By 1960, 7.7% of American adults had completed college, a proportion that has increased steadily: 11% in 1970, 17% in 1980, 21.3% in 1990, 25.6% in 2000, and 30.4% in 2011.
Democratizing access to college culminated in democratizing the experience of college. It would not, for example, have occurred to the more self-confident colleges of yore to solicit undergraduates’ evaluations of their professors. The idea that sophomores are qualified to weigh in on their instructors’ “knowledge of the subject matter” would, instead, have struck them as upending the premise of operating a college. Student evaluations have become ubiquitous since the 1970s, however, and are important factors in determining faculty promotion and compensation.
In Culture and Anarchy Matthew Arnold described culture as “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” But, democrats ask, who’s to say what’s the best? After the upheavals of the 1960s, America’s colleges came to doubt their authority to impose any particular canon or standards. Cornell University endured especially convulsive campus protests in 1969. A few years later, after it transformed itself in order to placate students and faculty who found the old curriculum oppressive and irrelevant, two professors, Werner Dannhauser and L. Pearce Williams, posed a question in the student newspaper to the school’s president:
If we prove to you that an Arts and Sciences student can now receive a B.A. degree at Cornell, and thus be presumed to have acquired a liberal education, without having been required to read a line of Plato, the Bible, Shakespeare, Marx or Einstein, would you consider this to be evidence that there is a crisis in education at Cornell?
By never answering them, the president made clear that the “crisis” was then, and would be henceforth, business as usual. And if an institution as prestigious as Cornell had abandoned such fundamentals, there was no chance Generic U. would pick up the torch.
Nature abhors a vacuum, however, as today’s undergraduates may or may not have heard. It was not feasible for college to be a four-year show about nothing, where undergraduates sampled two or three dozen electives chosen from a thick course catalog while gliding toward their commencement ceremonies. And the something the modern college has come to be about is where political correctness enters the discussion.
Colleges’ new mission, as the missionaries who control them understand it, is redemptive but not really political. That is, they work to impart dispositions they believe should be, for any decent and reasonable person or nation, beyond politics. The core of that mission, for many years, was “diversity,” in the sense of preparing students for adulthood in a heterogeneous nation and interconnected world by making sure they understood and respected all kinds of people and ways of living. In 1985 the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) declared:
All study is intended to break down the narrow certainties and provincial vision with which we are born…. To broaden the horizons of understanding for men and women, therefore, colleges must provide them with access to the diversity of cultures and experiences that define American society and the contemporary world. The fragility of the world in which we live and the volatile diversity of the populations of the United States adds urgency to the need for international and multicultural experience in the course of study. At this point in history, colleges are not being asked to produce village squires but citizens of a shrinking world and a changing America. Colleges must create a curriculum in which the insights and understandings, the lives and aspirations of the distant and foreign, the different and the neglected, are more widely comprehended by their graduates.
The acquisition of such comprehension became the justification for immersing students in the study of abuses committed throughout history by those—principally white, heterosexual males—who felt at liberty to disdain the insights and understanding, and trample the lives and aspirations, of the different and neglected. This commitment to a secular salvation has recently expanded to include “sustainability.” Colleges now work to make sure that, whatever else its students do or don’t learn, they graduate with a profound awareness of, revulsion for, and dedication to reversing the appalling violations committed against a fragile planet.
This rationale has ordered and directed what, in the wake of the post-1960s abandonment of higher education’s prior civilizational mission, would have been a hodge-podge of course offerings. In Texas, for example, state law requires students at public universities to complete at least two courses in American history. According to a recent study by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), in 78% of the eligible courses offered by the University of Texas at Austin, the majority of the readings are devoted to race, class, and gender. The six “special topics” courses offered in the semester NAS examined give an idea of the mix:
History of Mexican Americans in the U.S.
Introduction to American Studies
The Black Power Movement
Mexican-American Women, 1910-Present
Race and Revolution
The United States and Africa
The Hoover Institution’s Peter Berkowitz writes of modern academia more generally that “in class after class, students are exposed to debate that is largely restricted to progressive alternatives. Meanwhile, conservative opinions are either blithely ignored or contemptuously dismissed.” This asymmetry manages to do a disservice to the Right and the Left, since students thus educated are prepared to revile but not refute arguments that challenge their professors’ own narrow certainties. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”
The modern college’s mission is not confined to the classroom, wherein students’ minds have been known to wander. Broadening horizons to enhance comprehension of the different and neglected is a 24/7 endeavor. In 2007 the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) revealed that the University of Delaware’s Office of Residence Life had embarked on an indoctrination program using techniques first employed, more gently, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. All 7,000 students living in university dormitories were required, as part of a commitment to sustainability, to report individually to resident advisors on their progress in a sequence of goals specified by the Office, including:
· Each student will recognize that systemic oppression exists in our society. (sophomore year)
· Each student will recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression. (sophomore year)
· Each student will be able to utilize their [sic] knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality. (junior year)
· Demonstrate civic engagement toward the development of a sustainable society. (senior year)
The resident advisors monitoring progress toward these goals were upperclass—um, persons—who had been prepared for their assignments by the school’s professional staff members. Their “Diversity Facilitation Training” equipped the change-agent dorm advisors to absorb such distinctions as:
A RACIST: A racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality. By this definition, people of color cannot be racists, because as peoples within the U.S. system, they do not have the power to back up their prejudices, hostilities, or acts of discrimination….
REVERSE RACISM: A term created and used by white people to deny their white privilege. Those in denial use the term reverse racism to refer to hostile behavior by people of color toward whites, and to affirmative action policies, which allegedly give “preferential treatment” to people of color over whites. In the U.S., there is no such thing as “reverse racism.”
The Office of Residence Life’s sustainability curriculum won awards from the Commission for Social Justice Educators of the American College Personnel Association, but played poorly with a wider audience. Within days after FIRE publicized it, and posted on its own website 500 pages of the program’s curricular material, the University of Delaware’s president suspended the program. In 2008 the university unveiled a successor program, making a point of stating, “Students will not face penalties, perceived or real, for failing to engage in residential activities and programs. Staff and students will be aware that no activity in the residence halls is mandatory.”
Such tactical retreats signal occasional victories by opponents of political correctness. The widespread use of “political correctness” is itself the biggest victory, and the failure of higher education’s denizens to gauge sensibilities beyond the quad give rise to others. Earlier this year, for example, the Johns Hopkins University Student Government Association declined to recognize Voice for Life, an anti-abortion group, as an official student activity. (Students for Justice in Palestine received official recognition at the same meeting.) Hopkins “is a private university,” one member of the Association explained it, “and as such, we have the right to protect our students from things that are uncomfortable.” After a month of bad publicity, including a George F. Will column decrying Johns Hopkins’s fervent but selective commitment to “inclusion,” the university granted official recognition to Voice for Life.
More broadly, however, conservatives’ exertions have done nothing to dislodge systemic politically correct educational practices. The most aggravating part of this failure is not that it is an educational or political defeat. Conservatives have enough practice to take those in stride. What’s harder to explain and accept is that market forces, which conservatives believe to be powerful and salutary, have done so little to mitigate political correctness. For most American families, sending even one child through college is, after buying a home, the biggest financial commitment they’ll ever make. One would suppose that students and their parents would be indignant about receiving, in return for the investment of so much time and money, the shoddy, bizarre, and blatantly tendentious offerings of the oppressed victims grievance industry.
From another perspective, the consumers of the services rendered by America’s colleges and universities are the employers and post-graduate schools who hire and enroll the recent recipients of bachelor’s degrees. They, presumably, know and are unhappy about those services, the low quality of which Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa documented in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011). Their study, which tracked more than 2,300 students at a variety of four-year colleges, found that 45% “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college, and 36% did not do so over four years. “How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education?” they ask. Not all that much, it appears. For many undergraduates, “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose is readily apparent.” The employers of recent graduates whose competencies include dismantling systems of oppression, but not writing coherent paragraphs, are unlikely to be our higher educational system’s biggest fans.
And yet, none of these deficiencies seems to matter. Ever increasing numbers of Americans go to college. According to the Department of Education, the proportion of all Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled in post-secondary education (including two- and four-year colleges as well as trade schools) increased from 35% in 2000 to 41% in 2010. The growth in the ranks of “non-traditional” students, those 25 and over, was even faster.
What’s more, while colleges are teaching students less and less they are charging them more and more. Adjusted for inflation, the cost of tuition plus room and board at a 4-year public college or university was 46% higher in 2010 than in 2000, and 84% higher than in 1990. Those costs at private institutions have grown more slowly—2010 levels were 18% higher than in 2000 and 49% higher than in 1990—but from a much higher starting point. A private school still costs twice as much as a public one.
As has been well documented and widely decried, rising college costs have caused growing, and often shocking, student debt. Authors Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus reported in The Atlantic in 2011 that the $1 trillion owed on student loans exceeds the total balances due on all Americans’ credit cards. Two-thirds of undergraduates borrow to pay for their education, and the average amount they owed two years ago was $27,650. When, however, “personal circumstances go wrong, as can happen in a recession, interest, late payment penalties, and other charges can bring the tab up to $100,000.” On the theory that mortgage lenders can repossess homes, which retain some market value, but college lenders cannot recoup any part of their bad debts by repossessing diplomas, student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. To fall far behind in repaying them means, as one official tells Hacker and Dreifus, “You will be hounded for life.” Lenders will “garnish your wages. They will intercept your tax refunds,” and can revoke professional licenses and garnish Social Security checks.
Many young people who start college conclude they aren’t cut out for it, academically or socially; or can’t sustain the financial obligations; or find the advent of adult responsibilities, such as rearing children, makes studying impossible. They quit, and then end up with the worst of both worlds: debt but no diploma. A Department of Education study tracked a representative sample of students who in 2003 began working toward either a technical certificate or a two-year or four-year college degree. After six academic years, 49% had earned some kind of credential, 15% were still pursuing one, and 36% had left post-secondary schooling without any degree or certificate. Debts incurred by the third group, as well as by those in the second group who will never finish school, are no more dischargeable than degree recipients’ liabilities. One professor recently wrote, “I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.”
The Credentials Business
How do all the other tenured, morally self-congratulatory educators live with the knowledge that many of their students, after having had their narrow certainties and provincial visions broken down, face years of indentured servitude? We can begin to understand by thinking of the 2,774 U.S. institutions that (as of 2010) grant bachelor’s degrees as being in the credentials business rather than the education business. The Daily Beast’s Megan McArdle, summarizing an interview with economist Bryan Caplan, points out that it’s “actually fairly easy to get a Princeton education for free, as long as you don’t want the degree: just walk in off the street and sit in on the classes. It’s unlikely that a professor will kick you out, or even notice.” No one does this, of course, since no matter how much you might have learned auditing courses, your degree-less self will fare no better in the job market than will the next autodidact.
Many students do the opposite, however: earning, or in any case receiving, college degrees after learning as little as possible. After all, writes McArdle, college students “cheer when class is cancelled. This makes no sense if the goal is accumulation of human capital. In no other business are customers excited to get less than they were promised.”
Large public universities, where millions of Americans enroll, are especially conducive to the avoidance of intellectual exertion and achievement. As John Merrow, a journalist specializing in education, discovered in 2005 after investigating academic life at the University of Arizona, “learning seems to be optional.” Many undergraduates, in the words of one administrator he interviewed, are “‘maze smart’—they have figured out what they have to do to get through: buy the book, find out what’s going to be on the exam and stay invisible.” Another spoke of the “mutual nonaggression pact,” in which the professor gives the students high grades for mediocre work, and the students give the professor generous evaluations for indifferent teaching. As Arizona’s dean of students acknowledged, “We have a lot of students whose motivation for coming here is to get a good job. They think, ‘How do I get the grades?’ instead of trying to learn.”
Such prosaic concerns were less pressing in the long decades before higher education’s democratization. A disproportionate number of the small group of Americans who attended college were young men with three last names followed by Roman numerals, and the assurance of living off their family’s accumulated wealth. The era of expansion that started with the G.I. Bill rested on the conviction, endlessly repeated publicly and privately, that a college degree was the way to get ahead in America. Left unsaid was that it was the way to get ahead…of those who had not gone to college. College was indeed a good investment of time and money in 1960, when only one out of every 13 American adults had a bachelor’s degree.
Now that the day is at hand when one out of every three will have a B.A., the calculus is different. Going to college is becoming one of those good ideas that turns into a bad idea when too many other people have the same idea—like leaving town early before a three-day weekend to avoid the traffic jam, thereby helping cause and becoming part of the traffic jam you left to avoid. Credentials “are a zero-sum game,” McArdle writes, and as a result, “getting more people into college simply means more competition for a limited number of well-paying jobs.”
If you don’t believe her ask Landon Crider, who makes $10 an hour as a “runner,” schlepping documents back and forth between the courthouse and the office of his employer, an Atlanta law firm. The firm, according to the New York Times, “hires only people with a bachelor’s degree,” even if they’ll be discharging the simplest duties, in the belief that they are “just more career-oriented,” as the managing partner explained. College graduates have made “a real commitment to their futures,” he says, and are “not just looking for a paycheck.” Crider, 24, prefers his work for the firm to washing rental cars, the job he had immediately after graduating from Georgia State University. The firm’s receptionist makes $37,000—more than Crider—but ran up $100,000 in student loans while getting a degree in fashion and retail management from the Art Institute of Atlanta. “I will probably never see the end of that bill,” she says.
Just as monetary inflation is the result of too many dollars chasing too few goods, “degree inflation” occurs when too many credentials chase too few jobs. As the bachelor’s degree, per se, becomes an ever more rickety ladder to the middle class, the emphasis has shifted to getting into a good college—which is always understood to mean a highly selective one. Anxious parents, who sign up their children for College Board prep courses and frantic rounds of application—strengthening extracurricular activities, are exultant upon learning they’ve been given the opportunity to pay a famous college $200,000 over the next four years. Surely, if market forces mean anything at all, those customers ought to be vigilant against an academic experience for their children that’s suffused with the intellectually ephemeral and politically belabored.
National Personnel Department
To understand why demand for a rigorous education that presents a variety of perspectives fairly is so faint, consider a 1995 Wall Street Journal article about Masters of Business Administration programs at the nation’s most highly regarded business schools. It described how coursework was becoming a peripheral concern as students devoted most of their time to “dozens of corporate presentations, career-club meetings, résumé-writing seminars and recruiter-sponsored parties.” “We practice what we teach,” one dean explained, which meant viewing “students and recruiters alike as ‘customers’ who must be served.” The students want good jobs, the recruiters want hard-working, hyper-smart employees, and it turns out neither desire necessarily has much to do with the classes offered.
Well, the Journal reporter wondered, what about all the, you know, school stuff? Several recruiters expressed doubt that “course content makes much difference.” One from Microsoft said, in effect, we don’t hire Wharton and Stanford graduates to avail ourselves of the insights and skills they acquired in the classroom. “In fact, we usually have to unlearn them of some of the things they pick up in those programs.” Indeed, the article reports, “few recruiters say the M.B.A. education itself is the primary reason for hiring M.B.A.s. ‘We’re buying more of what they already have than what they learned,’” according to a consulting firm’s recruiter.
Thus, according to another dean, “We’re not exactly an employment agency, but it comes pretty close.” Matter-of-factly rather than regretfully, a consultant says a corporation receiving 500 résumés every week necessarily relies on the business schools to sort that avalanche. “Between applicants eager to pursue an M.B.A. and top schools’ high admission standards, she says, ‘all you have left is the cream of the crop.’” Anyone bright and motivated enough to get into a highly selective business school, and then possessing the discipline needed to color inside the lines long enough to get through it, is bright and motivated enough to be a serious candidate for employment. (McArdle recalls attending an orientation session when she began her MBA program at the University of Chicago, where an official told the students, “We could put you on a cruise ship for the next two years and it wouldn’t matter.”) The crucial service the business schools render to their customers, both students and the organizations that hire them, takes place in the admissions office, not the classroom. The business schools’ customers don’t believe that anything particularly important has been taught or learned, but that degrees have been awarded to students carefully, successfully screened for the qualities big corporations and banks need most acutely.
To generalize from the most selective business schools to America’s entire credentials-industrial complex is to concur with Nicholas Lemann that “our universities have evolved into a national personnel department.” In The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (1999), he chronicles and deplores the unintended consequence of democratizing higher education since World War II: America has become more, not less, rigidly hierarchical. “The reason for the crush at the gates of selective universities is that people believe admission can confer lifelong prestige, comfort, and safety.”
This belief does not need to be well founded to be powerful. An unemployed engineer recently decided to send his daughter to New York University (her first choice) even though it would entail: a) accepting a financial aid package that leaves the family obligated to pay NYU 32,000 saved or borrowed dollars each year; and b) rejecting a full scholarship from Rutgers. It was, almost certainly, a huge, unnecessary mistake. According to a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger, “Students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges.” The trajectory of the engineer’s daughter’s life is, by virtue of the abilities and ambition that won her acceptance at NYU in the first place, likely to be little different from what it would have been had she gone to Rutgers—and saved her family and herself more than $100,000. We can safely assume, however, that no one in the NYU admissions or financial aid offices informed this girl or her parents about the NBER’s strong argument against attending a school you can’t afford. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Inclusivity and Exclusivity
Higher education has dual roles in modern America: acting as the nation’s self-appointed moral conscience; while sorting adolescents, on the basis of youthful promise measured (or mismeasured) by aptitude tests and admissions offices, into the economic and social strata they are likely to occupy for the rest of their lives. The two mesh awkwardly. Lemann believes the most selective institutions, in particular, are afflicted with “a somewhat oxymoronic liberal elitism—a fierce, competitive protectiveness toward their privileged position combined with discomfort over their role as a generator of wondrous economic advancement for their graduates.”
The new report “What Does Bowdoin Teach?,” produced by the National Association of Scholars, found much to criticize at the Maine liberal arts college, including a pervasive commitment to “inclusivity.” The week the report was released in April, Bowdoin’s student newspaper ran a story headlined, “College Boasts New Record With 14.5 Percent Acceptance Rate.” The figure is an improvement upon 2012′s results, when a mere 83.9% of Bowdoin applicants, as opposed to the current 85.5%, were sent rejection letters. The increase did not result from admitting fewer students than in the past, but from receiving “an all-time high of 7,052 applicants,” 5% more than in the previous year. The dean of admissions ascribes the increase to the fact that Bowdoin is “getting better and better known as a really fantastic place.”
Colleges operate on the same principle Tom Sawyer employed to get Aunt Polly’s fence painted: “to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” The way to go from being categorized by U.S. News and World Report as “selective” (e.g., Illinois College) to “more selective” (e.g. Colby College) to “most selective” (e.g. Bowdoin, Amherst, and Williams) is to receive more applications for the same number of freshman class openings. The incentive, then, is for colleges to generate more applications from kids they do want to admit by encouraging more applications from kids they don’t want to admit. Rejecting a larger number of applicants for the same number of openings reduces a college’s acceptance rate, which many teenagers, parents, and high school guidance counselors, along with U.S. News and World Report, take as evidence that a particular school must be a really fantastic place.
For all their brochures and seminars lauding inclusivity, then, the core principle of the most selective colleges and universities is exclusivity. Those who attend an “Ivy League or equivalent school,” writes literary critic William Deresiewicz, who received degrees from Columbia and has taught at Yale, spend four years being flattered as “the best and the brightest,” the clear implication being that everyone else is “something else: less good, less bright.”
There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s intellect or knowledge. There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail. From orientation to graduation, the message is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their SAT scores are higher.
Any of the two dozen or so institutions that reject over 80% of their applicants could demonstrate a matchless commitment to inclusivity by reducing admissions to a simple, two-step process. First, administer to all who apply a test designed to identify those highly likely to complete the course of study. Second, forswear all criteria other than random selection to determine which applicants, among those who passed the test, will receive acceptance letters. The resulting student body would be maximally diverse and inclusive.
No school does this, or ever will. A prestigious college assembling a freshman class is determining its institutional character not just for the next four years but the next 40. The “purpose of Yale College,” writes Deresiewicz, “is to manufacture Yale alumni. Of course, for the system to work, those alumni need money.” Elite colleges that want to remain elite and aspire to become even more elite are “strongly invested in fostering institutional loyalty” among their alumni. And for that loyalty to have practical rather than just sentimental value, it’s important that many students pursue lucrative careers in “law, medicine, or business, and elite universities are not going to do anything to discourage the large percentage of their graduates who take their degrees to Wall Street.”
Hunters and Gatherers
Such colleges’ admissions officers, then, are not solely or even particularly concerned with identifying the 18-year-olds most likely to write impressive term papers about endangered species or the exploitation of indigenous peoples. Rather, the officers’ burden is to divine which adolescents will be most beneficial to the college over the coming decades. The goal is to assemble an entering class that, over time, yields the ideal mix of hunters and gatherers, who will give the college, respectively, cash and cachet. Hunters possess or acquire wealth. Gatherers-liberal-arts majors who pursue liberal-arts lives as educators, artists, or activists—do noble, fascinating, or quirky things supplying grist for inspirational convocation addresses and terrific cover stories in the alumni magazine. Their careers impress prospective students and their parents, and reassure even the most bored or dyspeptic alumni that, by virtue of sharing a college bond with such characters, they too must be reasonably noble, fascinating, and quirky. The 43 Bowdoin alumni serving on its board of trustees present a state-of-the-art hunter-gatherer admixture: managing partners and top executives of law and investment firms, with a sprinkling of teachers and founders of non-profit organizations.
Colleges become whom they hire and admit, so it’s crucial to get those decisions right. Bowdoin, for example, did not amass a $900 million endowment by holding bake sales. (According to a calculation made last year, Bowdoin’s endowment, relative to its enrollment, was the 21st largest in the nation, meaning it has more endowment dollars per student than such universities as Duke, Northwestern, Columbia, and Cornell.) Colleges covet students who are, or someday will be, able to make “lead gifts” in capital campaigns, or avail themselves of “naming opportunities” for professorships or buildings. According to the U.S. News and World Report profile, 45.9% of Bowdoin undergraduates receive need-based financial aid. (To the college’s great credit, it gives none of that aid in the form of loans, and all of it as grants, scholarships, or student employment.) This means two things. First, 54.1% of Bowdoin students are not receiving need-based financial aid. Take away the subset receiving merit-based scholarships, and the rest are “full-pays,” students whose families wrote a check for $56,128 to cover tuition, room, and board in the 2012-13 academic year. Parents able to write four such checks are often able to write others. Unless, improbably, Bowdoin is markedly more diffident and disorganized than comparable institutions, it has development officers whose job is to figure out who those parents are, how much they can donate, and how best to seek and secure those donations. The appeals usually begin before, sometimes long before, the full-pay student has graduated. Other development officers will labor to weave together and strengthen the bonds of affection connecting the college to such families, and then to the graduates who go forth. The effort and ingenuity devoted to such cultivation will be carefully calibrated to the “giving capacity” of the various “prospects.” They call it development for a reason.
Second, the grants and scholarships awarded to the other 45.9%—with an average value of $35,975, according to U.S. News and World—need to be understood as calculated, strategic investments, rather than simply benefactions. Colleges today use financial aid as a form of price discrimination, a means of tailoring what they charge various customers. One reason it’s feasible is that college admissions are not exchangeable goods. If Bowdoin gives me a $35,975 discount on its $56,128 sticker price, I can’t turn around and sell you the $20,153 ticket that’s going get me into freshman orientation for $55,128, making a $34,975 profit while saving you $1,000. Rather, you’ll have to work out your own deal with the college.
From the college’s perspective, determining how much financial aid to offer each applicant requires answering, or making the best possible guesses about, some important questions: first, how much help does a particular applicant need to come to our college? The answer will depend not only on the family’s resources, which can be gauged from the standard financial aid application, but also our assessment of how ardently the applicant wants to come to our college, rather than some other. To confer a $35,975 discount on an applicant who would have come to our college even if we had offered only $25,975 means we have $10,000 less to offer than we otherwise would. For the lack of it, we could lose another applicant who decides to go elsewhere.
Second, when we’re deciding which discounts to offer which applicants, we need to ask: how much do we want each of them? Rutgers, for example, wanted the girl who ended up going to NYU enough to enroll her, in effect, for free. How much we want each plausible applicant, in turn, depends on the admissions office’s judgments about the prospect that each applicant will help constitute an incoming class that makes the campus a stimulating, congenial, impressive place for the next four years; then will help make alumni gatherings further affirmations of the college’s value; and, finally, will increase the likelihood that appeals from the development office will be increasingly and on occasion even spectacularly fruitful.
There’s so little market pressure against the advance of political correctness in higher education, then, because colleges and their customers are mutually invested in defending the institution’s reputation and burnishing its prestige. The students, parents, and alumni disturbed by slanted course offerings and kangaroo court practices, such as those whereby Duke University distinguished itself seven years ago when members of its lacrosse team were falsely accused of rape, find it easier—safer—to let all that pass than to make a fuss. It would diminish the value of Most Selective U.’s acceptance letters and diplomas if it were to wind up being regarded as only marginally saner than a combination playpen and reeducation camp like Antioch College. Employers, we have seen, don’t hire Most Selective graduates to get the benefit of what the students learned in class but of what the admissions office learned about the students during the application process. As long as Most Selective’s faculty and administration do nothing so outlandish and thoroughgoing as to compromise its ability to attract, vet, and retain bright and ambitious kids, all concerned will be motivated to make a small rather than a big deal about political correctness.
The bad news, for conservatives, is that these mutually reinforcing interests mean the efforts to put politically correct educators and colleges on the defensive are unlikely to make more headway in coming years than they have over the past 20. Groups like NAS, FIRE, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute have labored mightily to name and shame the agitprop courses and thuggish speech codes. The skirmishes they’ve won caused college presidents and public relations directors sleepless nights and embarrassing retreats, but have not catalyzed more fundamental reforms at any of the institutions disposed to be, in former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn’s phrase, islands of repression in a sea of freedom. In short, the quality and determination of the anti-P.C. campaign have been exemplary, but it’s hard to see what conservatives could do better or different than they’ve already done, or how either more of the same or anything new will turn the tide.
The less bad news is that political correctness will turn out to be more fatuous than dangerous if, as appears to be the case, few of its producers and consumers take it all that seriously. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s chronicle of his undergraduate odyssey, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (2005), makes the distinction between “street liberals” and “parlor liberals.” For the former, “Protests and activism aren’t just hobbies…or a chance to go slumming with the working class—they’re a way of life. Call them fools, if you will, but not hypocrites.” Parlor liberals, by contrast,
sit comfortably on the left of the American political spectrum, believing in gun control and gay rights, in affirmative action and abortion, in a multilateral foreign policy and a significant social safety net, and they will likely vote Democratic until they die. Yet there is still something conservative about them. They are creatures of their class, not would-be traitors to it, and they are deeply uncomfortable with radicalism in any form…. Parlor liberals are ultimately well disposed to the world and to their privileged place in it, believing that what injustices there are can be righted without too much political upheaval and unrest, and perhaps even without raising taxes.
The hyper-ambitious kids who wind up as undergraduates at the Most Selectives wouldn’t have made it through the daunting obstacle course to admission if they weren’t very, very good at following instructions. Most of them will dutifully parrot all the pieties about breaking down narrow, provincial certainties before going on to their comfortable Mandarin careers and lives, from which they will look back on their extravagant moments of youthful political posturing with rueful irony. Even many who were in the subset of insufferable overachievers—the kids who thrust their hands in the air one nanosecond after every question the professor asks—will qualify and ultimately abandon their street liberalism. Douthat notes that Lemann himself, as an undergraduate in the 1970s, wrote hand-wringing Harvard Crimson editorials about the Khmer Rouge, deploring their methods while doubting whether American liberals possessed the moral authority to condemn Indochina’s “staunch nationalists, socialists, remakers of their own society.” Lemann proposes several large-scale reforms of our meritocracy in The Big Test, but none of them involves driving urban dwellers into America’s countryside for spiritual purification and beheadings.
Parlor liberals like their liberalism, then, but they like their parlors, too. The Most Selectives’ graduates will have learned from observing their deans and professors that smart people can always devise justifications for having both. This facility makes it impossible to figure out where, in the politically correct university, extremism leaves off and careerism begins.
Skin in the Game
Although professors and deans have been busy polishing sermons against systemic exploitation, for example, it cannot have escaped their notice that since the 1970s America has had an enormous over-supply of Ph.D.s, especially in the humanities. Rebecca Schuman, the recent recipient of a doctorate in German literature, relates that about 150 scholars with that credential will apply for each of the ten tenure-track teaching jobs that open up in any given year. All those not hired end up with “adjunct positions: benefit-free, office-free academic servitude in which you will earn $18,000 a year for the rest of your life.” Some are even less fortunate, like the woman who owed $80,000 in student loans by the time she finished her Ph.D. at Columbia. Upon finding no academic or other work allowing both rent and loan payments, the aspiring professor took the option she considered least bad by going to work for an escort service. Many, then, will come to agree with Schuman-graduate school “will ruin your life.”
Such lives have not been ruined in vain. It has been clear for decades that no college classroom in America would lack for a professor if most graduate programs were shut down. They remain open because the reserve army of underemployed scholars has become indispensible to furnishing the academic parlor. It is prestigious for an institution to have graduate programs, and an admission of defeat for it to close them. Many professors like teaching graduate students, more mature and committed to an academic field than undergraduates. And, most important, the ready availability of adjuncts allows colleges of all kinds to sell credit hours cheaply and flexibly, adding or dropping courses at the last moment as enrollment dictates. After all, students enrolled in adjuncts’ courses pay the same tuition as students taught by full professors.
There has been talk of reducing student loan obligations for graduates (or dropouts) with lower incomes. Any such reform would shift some of the burden for disastrous educational and career choices, now borne entirely by the former student, to lenders and taxpayers, assuming—as we can with an extremely high degree of confidence—that government will subsidize the program. It would be fairer, though, if educational institutions also had some skin in the game. As it stands, Georgia State University and the Art Institute of Atlanta have every incentive to sell as many bachelor’s degrees as the market will bear. If they, too, paid a price when their graduates wound up trying to pay off student loans on a runner or receptionist’s salary, they might well revise their course offerings and admissions policies. Similarly, universities might at long last euthanize redundant graduate programs if they faced financial penalties when their students came to find that a doctoral dissertation on, say, Peruvian folk-dancing and the subversion of heteronormativity, leads only to a career as an adjunct—or an escort.
More generally, it would be good if people who wanted to demonstrate to prospective employers that they are smart and motivated had a cheaper, less protracted way to send that signal than by earning a bachelor’s degree. The credentials-industrial complex is understandably delighted to have this huge captive market. By holding hostage the credential job-seekers need, colleges can sell all sorts of courses for which there would otherwise be no demand or justification. Colleges keep raising tuition, according to economist Richard Vedder, mostly because they can.
There is now great promise that online education will supplant or transform much of what colleges offer. Conservatives are enthused about the prospect the internet will lay siege to higher education as it has to the media, that other fortress of liberal sanctimony. (The market capitalization of the New York Times Company has declined from $7 billion in 2002 to about $1 billion today.) Professors furiously oppose competing against other, more famous professors at distant institutions, or seeing the 120-credit hour bachelor’s degree program broken up into customized packages, the way the iPod made it possible to buy particular songs without paying for entire albums. We can expect their efforts to thwart web-based education will succeed as impressively as the typewriter industry’s heroic stand against the personal computer, or John Henry’s against the steam-powered hammer.
But online instruction is likely to prevail only secondarily because it is technologically possible, and primarily because drastically reshaping higher education is economically and socially necessary. “The chief aim of school,” Lemann writes, “should be not to sort out but to teach as many people as possible as well as possible, equipping them for both work and citizenship.” That aim is betrayed, not advanced, by fitting millions of different people and aspirations into the one-size-fits-all bachelor’s program. Its reconfiguration will force many current professors, in fashion and retail management as well as departments of victimology, to find honest work, but also relieve young people from the burden of acquiring expensive credentials for careers that have only the most tenuous connection to anything taught in today’s college classroom. American higher education, established and expanded for admirable reasons, has itself now become a system of oppression that needs and deserves to be dismantled.