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By utilizing new technologies, it is now possible to reduce the cost of disseminating degree programs from current high levels that drive parents and college students into extreme indebtedness…

On Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 13, The New York Times published a negative report on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The report, titled “Education Department Unwinds Unit Investigating Fraud at For-Profits” was created by a “team” of investigative journalists. Given the background of the team’s members, this report is likely to be the first of a sustained effort of criticism aimed at U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

Let’s examine this report in light of the animus of the Obama Administration toward for-profit higher education, the real crises affecting American higher education and the main architect of the Obama Administration’s effort to destroy proprietary education—Robert Shireman.[1]

Robert Shireman became active in higher education reform as Legislative Director to Senator Paul Simon (D-IL). During his seven years on Senator Simon’s staff, Mr. Shireman got his first taste of blood by successfully negotiating assistance for victims of what he called “fly-by-night trade schools.” The term “fly-by-night trade schools” suggests that he was predisposed to assume that for-profit education was characterized by deception.

Mr. Shireman then spent two years as a Senior Policy Advisor on President Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council, where his focus was on education of low-income and Hispanic families, middle-class tax cuts for education, and increases in funds for Pell Grants.

Mr. Shireman next served four years as Program Director at the James Irving Foundation, where he was responsible for $15 million in annual grants. Mr. Shireman then founded the Institute for College Access & Success, where he focused on enrollment and graduation policies affecting disadvantaged students in higher education.

Though Mr. Shireman’s lifelong interest is “education,” apart from earning the Ed.M. degree from Harvard in Teaching and Curriculum, there is no evidence that he earned an advanced degree in a substantive academic discipline other than “education,” nor that he ever taught a course in any subject at the college level.

When Mr. Shireman was appointed Deputy Under Secretary of Education, he brought to his tasks a specialization in education “process.” Unfortunately, that orientation was motivated by an animus toward for-profit education. (In the interest of transparency, I am the founder of a conservative, for-profit, Internet university, which is now eighteen years old.)

The New York Times’ “Attack Team,” which is obviously gunning for a Pulitzer, consists of Danielle Ivory, Erica L. Green, and Steve Eder. Ms. Ivory is a critic of the lack of qualifications of many Trump Administration political appointees. Ms. Green has written critically of that bugaboo of the Left, racial bias in education. Mr. Eder tracks the business interests of President Trump and members of his family.

Ms. Ivory, Ms. Green, and Mr. Eder do not focus on any real problems facing consumers of American higher education products. Their focus is on Aaron Ament, the former chief of staff to the office of the department’s general counsel, who complains as follows: “Unfortunately, Secretary DeVos seems to think the colleges need protection from their students.”

Aaron Ament is now president of the National Student Legal Defense Network. According to his U.S. Department of Education biography, “Prior to joining the Department, Mr. Ament served as an Assistant Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Kentucky where he oversaw non-profit and charitable asset enforcement cases, and represented several state agencies in civil litigation matters.”

No wonder Aaron Ament no longer works for the U.S. Department of Education in a Republican Administration.

But, what is the real crisis affecting America, if not the self-absorbed laments of Mr. Ament?

By utilizing new technologies, it is now possible to reduce the cost of disseminating degree programs from current high levels that drive parents and college students into extreme indebtedness. The principal forces driving tuition increases are U.S. Department of Education regulations governing access to “Title IV” Pell Grants and student loans, plus accreditation standards for “regional” accreditation. “Regional Accreditation” requires that accredited institutions operate from physical campuses. That imposes the three additional obligations on colleges and universities. Not merely must they offer courses for degree credit, but they must engage in three other business enterprises: residential hotel services; food services, and entertainment (football).

The result is that, on average, the per-student cost for every college course is between $900 and $1,000. Baked into the cost of twenty courses for two years of college is $18,000 to $20,000 of operating costs attributable to government regulations and accreditation standards.

This explains why even Bill Gates was humbled that new technologies had not interrupted the business of higher education. Mr. Gates writes, “While video and computers have become important educational tools, their overall impact has been quite modest. There’s good reason to be humble about technology in education.”[2]

Sustained high costs of degree programs are transferred to education consumers. In 2016, total indebtedness for 42 million borrowers from U.S. government student aid programs was $1.92 billion. According to one source that services students in debt for student loans, “the average student loan debt for Class of 2017 graduates was $39,400, up six percent from the previous year.” [3]

Consider the above chart that compares increases in the cost of living from 1980 to 2012. According to the Center for College Affordability, while the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) has risen 179 percent since 1980, college tuition and fees have increased nearly five times more—a staggering 893 percent.

This list of tuition costs at Colorado public institutions, significantly reduced under the Administration of Democrat Party Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, indicates how state subsidies at public universities can reduce actual costs of administering ten courses for degree credit from below actual cost of $10,000 to less than $5,000 a year.

 College Eight Courses, In-State Ten Courses, In-State
Fort Lewis College – Durango $2,896 $3,750
Metropolitan State University of Denver $3,174 $3,878
University of Northern Colorado $2,974 $3,818
Adams State College $1,912 $2,390
University of Colorado at Boulder $4,032 $5,040

The cost of tuition at private institutions in Colorado reveals actual costs, however, and is substantially higher.

College 2018 Annual Tuition
Colorado College $54,996
Colorado Christian $31,366
University of Denver $13,200 (for ten credits, 2017 numbers)

The list (below) of tuition costs at private institutions in Pennsylvania suggests that, even when college costs are discounted, sometimes by as much as thirty percent at some private institutions, few families in Pennsylvania, or anywhere else where college costs are high, can afford to send their children to the “better” private colleges without taking on very substantial debt.

College Annual Tuition Room and Board Four Year Total
Haverford $54,100 $70,994 $283,976
Bucknell $55,788 $69,754 $279,016
Dickinson College $54,186 $68,344 $273,376
Swartmore College $52,190 $68,062 $272,248
Gettysburg $54,480 $67,490 $269,960
Lehigh-Undergraduate $52,480 $56,770 $227,080

Barriers to any decrease in tuition costs include regional accreditation “Standards,” increasing state authorization regulations imposed by education authorities of the states, and regulations governing access to federal “Title IV” tuition loans and grants.

Regional Accreditation, a type of accreditation attained by most major colleges and universities, is a particularly vicious participant by requiring that courses be offered from a campus.

An attempt was made to rectify that glaring inequity between 1999 and 2008, when one of the regional agencies granted accreditation to six solely-Internet institutions. That short-lived experiment was closed when the incoming Obama Administration in late 2008 signaled that it was going to crack down on the for-profit sector.

Removing the barrier of operating from a high-cost campus, of course, will permit the application of new technologies for development and dissemination of programs and courses at low cost via the Internet. The education Establishment will have none of that.

Nevertheless, admitting high technology Internet courses for regional accreditation must take into consideration that there is a difference between classroom instruction and distance learning. That difference, for the most part, is little understood and, thus, has been ignored.

The distance between classroom instruction and online, distance, learning is a difference of kind, not of degree. Unless that distance is traversed by introduction of principles of instructional design for distance learning, course completion rates will be extremely low and the cost of accredited Internet degree programs will remain high. Successful implementation of new technologies of Internet-delivered courses and programs will depend upon utilization of best practices of instructional design for distance learning.

That requires the radical step of removing a federal requirement—and a requirement of some states—that students participate in discussions. The conduct of meaningful classroom discussions, as any college teacher will tell you, is extremely difficult. Online, discussions are nigh impossible.

If, for example, a course uses massive, open, online technologies and attracts one hundred thousand students, a “discussion” requirement defeats the gains in price of those technologies. If a course is offered at a specific time and thus is conducted “live,” administrators face problems with students from different time zones.

Even if all students are enrolled according to where they live, instructors face difficulties of corralling students who do not attend, cajoling students who are unprepared when they do attend, and the tendency of “discussions” to go “off topic.” “Chats” are even less credible as tools for distance education. Adding a microphone to make discussions more effective simply adds extensive administrative costs and “class” time.

Solution: Replace “discussions” with significant web-based exercises including topical searches, book reviews, essays and self-administered tests.

Today we have the technology and slowly, very slowly, educators are beginning to learn some important lessons about instructional design.[4] But, accreditation agencies, state authorization boards and administrators of Title IV loan and grant programs at the U.S. Department of Education have not changed their thinking about those standards or regulations.

That is the story that The New York Times should report.

The New York Times reports, however, that a team of career professionals in the U.S. Department of Education tasked with countering “fraudulent” practices of for-profit education companies has been “marginalized.”

The extreme measures taken by the Obama Administration, and implemented by Robert Shireman, starting in 2009, brought the proprietary education sector in higher education to its knees, and caused billions of dollars of losses in the value of publicly-traded education companies.

At a symposium for State Attorneys General conducted by George Mason University’s Law and Economic Center on October 16, 2015, I spelled out what would occur if the GOP won the 2016 election. What I did not predict was the lack of action by the Trump Administration of appointing conservative education professionals to the Department who are committed to reform.

U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos herself fits a pattern of top Trump Administration appointees. Secretary DeVos is enormously wealthy and lacks government experience. Her principle Deputy, Mike Zais, is a former U.S. Army Brig. General[5], as if the Trump Administration needs more career military people in top positions! Moreover, though Gen. Zais was once a college president, he did nothing to lower Newberry College’s tuition cost. He served for ten years, but clearly never gave a thought to radical reform.

The New York Times’ report does not focus on Gen. Zais, but cites the appointment of Julian Schmoke, a former dean at for-profit DeVry University, as the fraudulent activity team’s new supervisor, and the hiring of Robert Eitel as Special Assistant to Secretary DeVos. Those two appointments, of course, placed foxes in the hen house, but that was to be expected given the strength of the for-profit higher education lobby.

With massive losses at higher education for-profit companies caused by the policies of Robert Shireman, the for-profit proprietary education lobby in Washington, DC started in 2009 to act strongly against Mr. Shireman’s initiatives and was prepared to lobby the next President, if by chance a Republican was elected.

What conservative educators were not prepared for was the stated policy of President Trump not to nominate persons to positions requiring Senate confirmation and other political appointments at the discretion of the President. The President feels that the government “has too many people” and believes that he can run the government of the United States like a family business. In that context, the only explanation that can be found for waving a red flag by appointing Julian Schmoke and Robert Eitel to the Department is the well-organized and funded lobby for the proprietary education industry.

All the other critical issues facing education consumers lack a voice in councils of the U.S. Department of Education. If the purpose of hiring Messrs. Schmoke and Eitel was to raise red flags, why has the focus of the Department not turned toward abuses by the not-for-profit education sector? The answer: Incompetence and no prior government experience of President Trump and his “team” of family members and his few appointees.

Too bad the Department hasn’t added twenty or thirty education professionals who do know how to repair the damage done to America by higher education—by the Federal government and Leftwing instructors and administrators. Should the Department ever need assistance finding conservative education professionals, I have a list of names and addresses of forty-seven conservative scholars who would consider accepting appointments to the Department.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] Portions of this essay will be published in A Nation at Risk—American Higher Education in the 21st Century, a sequel, focused on higher education, to A Nation at Risk published in 1983 that focused on K-12 education.

[2] Gates, Bill “My Take on Technology & Teaching” Gates Notes (March 1, 2011).

[3] Student Loan Hero, Debt Statistics.

[4] A flurry of new postgraduate instructional design degree programs have been developed to address this problem: See “Top Instructional Design Degrees and Programs” Instructional Design Center.

[5] Gen. Zais served as president of Newberry College in South Carolina where annual tuition is $27,500 and where room and board for one year at Newberry cost $32,800.

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