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Open universities to competition

| Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Students walk past Sather Gate on the University of California, Berkeley campus. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)
Students walk past Sather Gate on the University of California, Berkeley campus. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

Updated 19 hours ago

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” and “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” are failing to instill important American values in their students.

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 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.

Take, for example, the significant regulations placed on for-profit colleges. Policies such as “borrower's defense to repayment” (a type of loan forgiveness) and “gainful employment” (which requires for-profit schools to prove their graduates earn a good wage, using one-size-fits-all metrics) place an undue burden on these institutions, often limiting their ability to grow and improve.

Our outdated accreditation system is also to blame.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 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 toward marketable skills needed for the workforce. Unfortunately, the current regulatory environment has made it difficult for these alternative schools to thrive.

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 non-traditional education options to challenge the status quo.

Mary Clare Amselem is a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

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