This is a banner year for anniversaries: 400 years since the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, 100 years since women first voted in a presidential election, 75 years since World War II ended, and 20 years since the 9/11 attack on the United States. Less momentous but still very consequential, 40 years ago this month the U.S. Department of Education opened for business.
The nicest thing I can say about the Department of Education is it is not the worst federal intervention in higher educationonly second worst (not as bad as the federal financial assistance programs, especially student loans). But if asked is American higher education today better than 40 years ago when this department started? I would answer no!
Are American college students today learning more than those living in the 1970s? Colleges, in the knowledge business, know remarkably little about how much their students learn. The sparse intertemporal evidence, however, suggests that learning has probably declined somewhatsomewhat dated information suggests literacy among college students has fallen, fact-based student knowledge of American civic institutions is appallingly low, etc. Labor Department data shows students study embarrassingly little (and sharply less than in the era before the Education Department), and the rise in grade inflation has continued strongly on the Departments watch. How can learning increase with students spending less time studying but getting ever higher grades? Moreover, the Department does not even try very hard to measure learning for college students: the last major literacy assessment of college students that I know about occurred 17 years ago.
Before the creation of the Department, college tuition fees rose about one percent a year more than the overall inflation rate, but in the first 35 years of the Departments existence, inflation-adjusted tuition inflation roughly tripled, causing the huge college student loan crisis and a declining proportion of students graduating from the bottom quartile of the income distribution.
Collegiate research is more the purview of agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, but even here Americas longtime global leadership seems to be declining somewhat. So based on the core teaching and research missions, I would say the notion that centralized direction of colleges and universities is better than decentralized control is clearly unsupported.
Interestingly, although Democrats overwhelmingly controlled Congress and Jimmy Carter was president, they were fiercely divided on whether to create the Education Department. It cleared the House Education Committee on a 20 to 19 vote with seven Democrats joining Republicans in opposing it. Opponents included such liberal icons as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Times, Washington Post and even the American Federation of Teachers. Carter had promised the larger teachers union, the National Education Association, he would get the department created and he delivered.
The worst fears of both conservatives and staunch civil libertarians came in 2011 with the dear colleague letter that had zero constitutional basis in law decreeing that colleges must adopt standards in sexual assault cases totally inconsistent with American traditions of criminal justicethe right to confront accusers, be represented by legal counsel, etc. It mandated a very low standard of proof completely unacceptable in criminal proceedings in America. This has spurred a mountain of litigation and contention.
In the past few years under Secretary Betsy DeVos (one of several secretaries, beginning with Bill Bennett, that I actually got to know and admire), the Department has done some positive things. It recently issued, after reviewing 124,000 (!!!) comments, new regulations reversing the worst of the damage created by the dear colleague letter.
Moreover, the Department has started doing the one task it really makes sense for it to do: providing Americans useful information about colleges and universities. The College Scorecard, started in the Obama years, now provides potential students with useful information about colleges, including earnings data by major. It is still highly imperfect, but an F job of providing consumer information now rises to a C grade from meprogress, but a good ways to go. Still, if I were a member of Congress and voting on a bill to eliminate the Department of Education, I would vote yes based on its generally abysmal contribution to higher education.