Conservatives and the Regulation of Higher Education

Thom Lambert —  12 October 2006

Classical liberals have long derided their conservative cousins for being fairweather friends of small government, but the criticism has been fairly limited. In general, conservatives have embraced limited government on matters of economic regulation and have endorsed governmental meddling only on matters involving so-called “values” issues like broadcast decency and homosexuality. Lately, though, conservatives seem ever more willing to embrace big government on matters that seem more economic than values-oriented.

An op-ed in yesterday’s NYT exemplifies this trend. The op-ed is by Eugene Hickok, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which is normally fairly laissez faire on economic matters. Hickok argues that the federal government should exercise more oversight of college curricula.

Hickok contends that the quality of education is declining at colleges, even as the cost of a college education is skyrocketing. He points to studies documenting poor reading comprehension skills and “appalling” levels of civics illiteracy among college graduates. (OK, I’ll confess that I don’t really care whether engineering and chemistry students know how many electoral votes it takes to win a presidential election…but that’s just me.) Hickok endorses efforts by the feds to hold colleges accountable, just as they hold primary and secondary schools accountable under No Child Left Behind.


Can a real conservative honestly claim that federal regulation will do a better job than market competition at preserving (and enhancing) the value of an American college degree? In case Hickok hasn’t noticed, colleges — spurred on by various ratings such as the much maligned U.S. News rankings — are competing tooth-and-nail these days. Sure, colleges make some mistakes (Hickock points to goofball course offerings like the history of comic book art), but when they do, they get punished as their competitors highlight the relative rigor of their own curricula. Schools like St. John’s, the University of Chicago, Columbia, and Hillsdale — all of which emphasize the classics — have benefited as their competitors have dumbed down their curricula. Competitive markets are far more likely than government bureaucrats to guarantee an optimal mix of curricular options.

Oh but shouldn’t the government “help” market processes by requiring colleges to produce the information necessary for consumers to make wise educational choices? Hickok thinks so:

One of No Child Left Behind’s hallmarks is transparency. Today parents know more about the performance of their children’s schools than ever before. This same principle needs to be applied to higher education.

He’s a little bit vague, but it seems Hickok is calling for some kind of standardized achievement tests for colleges. Such testing is, of course, what creates No Child Left Behind’s “transparency.”

One might think that the gazillions of college guides — almost all of which provide detailed data on graduates’ scores on the GRE, LSAT, and MCAT — would provide this sort of information. Hickok, though, thinks this market response is inadequate: “The various college rating systems and publications are entertaining and interesting to read, but they don’t provide the sort of objective data tuition payers need to make informed decisions.” In other words, the government would do a better job of providing relevant information.

Color me skeptical.

The most troubling part of Hickok’s argument is his claim that because college students frequently use federal money to pay for tuition, the feds should exert control over college curricula. This is a dangerous argument for those of us who support vouchers as an alternative to public schools. If students’ use of federal dollars to pay for tuition opens their educational institutions up to federal oversight, then private and parochial schools that accepted federal dollars from poor kids would subject themselves to all sorts of meddling. That possibility might deter private and parochial schools from enrolling voucher students.

Almost certainly, Hickok’s call for greater oversight of college curricula stems, at least in part, from a concern that college faculties and administrations are dominated by folks pushing a left-wing, politically correct, anti-Western viewpoint. In his words, these folks are “seriously out of touch with much of America.” Believe me, I’m sympathetic. But is increased government involvement in curriculum decisions the answer? Hickok might like the curricular reforms the Bush Administration and a Republican Congress might enact, but what happens when the composition of those in charge changes but governmental oversight remains? Might not St. John’s be required to supplement its Great Books curriculum with obscure works outside the Western canon? Is it really government’s business to be making these sorts of decisions to protect adults who have every interest in maximizing the value of their degree? I think not.

Hickok concludes by noting that “Much of the world has come to America to get a higher education. But nothing guarantees that this will be the case in the future.” While he’s technically correct (there are no guarantees — North Korea could blow us all up tomorrow), I’m optimistic. Just as it “guarantees” that our products will be better and cheaper in the future, competition guarantees that top-notch higher education will remain available in America, even without federal oversight.

Thom Lambert


I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

3 responses to Conservatives and the Regulation of Higher Education


    To the extent the world no longer “com[es] to America to get a higher education” it’s because of post-9/11 student visa requirements, not college curricula. I wonder if Eugene addresses that issue.


    I agree with Karen Kelly that an emphasis on graduation rates is scary. It’s not just that it’s a misleading measure of educational quality; it also sets up perverse incentives. Is it worse to matriculate students who don’t seem to be prepared for college, or to string them along for four plus years after you’ve discovered that they are not, in fact, capable of college-level work?

    In general, I wonder whether information necessarily improves the efficiency of educational markets. U.S. News rankings do contain some information, but pandering to their imputed formula can distort the decisions of colleges.

    Incentives don’t reward quality, they reward signals of quality. The noisier the signal, the less potential value. But the use of noisy signals is not necessarily less likely to create perverse incentives.


    College Testing,

    The scariest thing to me is the concern raised by the New York Times about graduation rates. Not every student deserves to graduate — and that is not the colleges fault. As long as the colleges publish honest graduate rates, the students and their parents have to take responsiblity.