The reformer: Can Ben Sasse and the Republicans fix higher education?
Could the Nebraska senator’s expertise and affability make him the perfect person to address the problems facing higher education?
Ben Sasse, the junior United States senator from Nebraska, has written tens of thousands of words about education policy, but his philosophy can perhaps best be summed up in 10 words: “We need more folks to fall in love with learning.”
“The world is changing, and we need to promote life-long learning and institutions that can provide it,” Sasse writes in a May essay for The Atlantic that reverberated throughout Washington. “American higher education is the envy of the world, and it’s also failing our students on a massive scale.”
Sasse has thought about this subject more than just about any other elected official in D.C. His book on the “vanishing American adult” just turned five years old, and even his critics concede he’d make a great history professor. That expertise — coupled with an affability that has won him friendships on both sides of the aisle — could make him the perfect person to break through the bureaucratic sludge and diagnose the structural problems facing higher education in our country. But at a time when partisans are looking for quick fixes in between cable news hits, can he recruit enough allies to join him on the tough and tedious road to reform?
Ben Sasse’s academic history
Sasse never looks comfortable in a suit — except for the cheap gold one he was awarded in May for appearing five times on “The Remnant,” a political podcast by and for conservative eggheads. He’s been known to wander the halls of Congress in a baggy T-shirt and gym shorts, and he looks much more at- home hawking Runza sandwiches at the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium in a bright-red Cornhuskers polo than he does wearing a necktie in a Senate Budget Committee hearing. Sasse’s boyish face, puckish grin and thick tousled hair make it hard to imagine anyone but Paul Rudd portraying him on the silver screen, and the actor’s Kansas City up- bringing would ensure the midwestern twang is down pat.
First elected in 2014, Sasse brought with him to public office a number of seemingly conflicting experiences and perspectives that might make him the lawmaker best equipped to break through the stagnation that has plagued the United States’ sprawling constellation of colleges, universities and trade schools and resulted in fewer than half of Americans attaining a degree beyond their high school diploma.
He holds degrees from both Harvard and Yale — and studied abroad at Oxford, where, in what he described as his “finest hour,” he was chosen to quarterback the American foot- ball team. And yet, Sasse thinks we devote entirely too much time and energy on a handful of elite schools that collectively service less than 1 percent of the 31 million people in the United States between the ages of 18 and 24. He’s a historian by training who will answer a journalist’s question by referencing Mark Twain, Christina Hoff Sommers and Abraham Kuyper — “the, you know, Dutch prime minister at the turn of the 20th century” — but considers Khan Academy founder Salman Khan to be “the most significant algebra teacher in the history of humanity.”
He’s taught at a massive public university (the University of Texas) and was the president of a tiny Christian one (Midland). He homeschooled his three kids on and off with his wife Melissa — a former inner-city high school teacher and administrator — in part because he believes the industrial model school is “terrible for human souls.” He’s a strong believer in the importance of the liberal arts, but some of his most memorable parenting advice centers on manual labor — his then-teenage daughter spent a month in 2016 working on a cattle ranch in exchange for room and board. “We just believe in work,” he said at the time.
“We need to be thinking broadly about that 18- to 24-year-old cohort, and what it looks like to create a civilization of lifelong learners for the first time in human history,” he told us when we met with him this summer. “Nobody’s ever had to solve this particular riddle. The historian in me is al- ways skeptical of ‘unprecedented’ kind of language, but this is unprecedented.”
Gone are the days when a young man or woman could select a vocation in their late teens or early 20s, hone their craft over the next decade and ride that career into retirement 30 or 40 years later. “People who are 25 and just getting out of their undergraduate life, or doing a master’s program, or professional school, or whatever, they’re mostly going to be doing something different at 55 than they’ll be doing at 35,” Sasse says. “You should learn forever — and definitely not mostly in- side a factory-like building at a specific age and then think you’re done.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given his political bent, Sasse envisions minimal government involvement in shifting to a new paradigm. “We need the state’s role to be chiefly around funding, but not around monopolistic administration and management of our institutions,” he argued, citing “Socrates 101” to explain why a child’s sense of curiosity should be sparked outside the classroom. “You can’t really give somebody the answer if they’re not asking a question. And so great teaching — and great families and great neighborhoods — help people find those ‘aha!’ moments of pursuing a question. And once somebody’s got a ques- tion, once that motor’s running, once there’s wind in the sails, there’s not really a problem. They’re going to figure out how to learn.”
But before students and schools can really grapple with this tectonic shift in approach, they face a much more immediate — and tangible — set of challenges: Costs are exploding, and there’s little reason to believe the tuition hikes will slow at any point in the near future. In fact, Washington’s current solution du jour — up to $10,000 in blanket student loan forgiveness per borrower — would exacerbate the problem.
“Washington is getting ready to subsidize failure,” Sasse writes in The Atlantic. “A megabailout in the form of student-debt forgiveness would prop up and excuse the broken parts of this system — missing the opportunity to go bigger and help college-age Americans from every class and community learn skills, enhance persistence, find work and embrace the dynamic opportunities of the coming quarter century.”
The biggest problem facing young Americans
The crisis facing higher education in this country did not show up overnight. But barring dramatic changes our sclerotic system seems incapable of implementing, it’s about to get a whole lot worse. The U.S. birthrate has been falling for decades, but the pace of the decline began accelerating in 2007. Now 15 years later, colleges and universities are bracing for applicant pools up to 20 percent smaller than previous generations. For many schools, it could be an extinction level event.
There are of course other concerns as well. What schools have been teaching is becoming less and less attractive to today’s young people, and the reputation of higher education more broadly — its biases and apparent attitude toward much of society — is preemptively turning many would-be students off. And then there’s the waning value of a college education.
“We have a system which is completely focused on selectivity as the coin of the realm when it should be focused on productivity and impact,” says Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University and author of “The Fifth Wave: The Evolution of American Higher Education.” “None of that is included in the way that we think about now.”
As happened with high schools, the percentage of Americans obtaining a bachelor’s degree is growing, but the marginal benefits of that degree are falling. A 2019 study from researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, for example, found that among white people born in the 1930s, those with college degrees owned 247 percent more wealth than those without them. That premium had shrunk to 42 percent for those born in the 1980s. The decline was even more stark for Black families, where the wealth effect was essentially nonexistent for those born between 1970 and 1989.
And yet the cost of a bachelor’s degree has skyrocketed. By one estimate, tuition growth has outpaced the overall rate of inflation by more than 170 percent in recent decades.
You should learn forever — and definitely not inside a factory-like builidng at a specific age and then think you’re done. —Ben Sasse
There’s plenty of blame to go around. Administrative bloat, ever-expanding federal regulations, exorbitant amenities and in- creased research spending have all resulted in higher costs. So has expanding access to populations that previously didn’t attend college: Schools compete more and more to cater to the tastes of the very wealthy and foreign students who can pay full freight, while spending more to support students less financially and academically prepared but most likely to take out substantial loans to attend.
But economists — and university presidents — will tell you there is something else at work: Baumol’s cost disease. Wage increases should be driven by productivity increases, but some sectors can’t be more productive. A string quartet in 2022 plays the same piece in the same length of time as it did in 1922, and yet it’ll cost you much more today to book one at your wedding. Why? Because other industries where productivity has improved are still competing for that labor. Universities may not have increased their productivity — it’s, generally, still a professor standing in front of a lecture hall — but they still need to attract talent from the sectors that have.
“In those industries in which technology is not used as a way to put an accurate price on labor, prices will rise infinitely,” Crow says. “That’s true in health care. That’s true in concert orchestras. And that’s true in many col- leges and universities.”
Of course, there’s always Occam’s razor: Raising tuition is easy. “Schools have been choosing the path of least resistance because that’s a human tendency,” says Mitch Daniels, who recently announced plans to step down as president of Purdue University after a decade-long run. “And charging more was much easier than disappointing people or terminating programs.”
In Sasse’s eyes, the biggest problem facing most young Americans is far more formidable — and intractable — than student debt. “It’s that our society has lost sight of the shared goal of offering them a meaningful, opportunity-filled future with or without college,” he argues. “We’ve lost the confidence that a nation this big and broad can offer different kinds of institutional arrangements, suited to different needs.”
He has a point. Americans hold $1.5 trillion in student debt today, up from $250 billion in 2004. That’s arguably a sign of progress, meaning college access is expand- ing to low- and middle-income Americans as the federal government has made educational loans easier to get. A lot more people are going to graduate school, which increases their borrowing, yes, but also their earn- ing potential.
And the debt itself isn’t as catastrophic as it first appears. Half of college graduates owe less than $20,000, and the six percent that owe more than $100,000 are almost all people who have taken out money for lucrative law and medicine degrees.
The numbers look even better for those who attend public or nonprofit universities, and for those who actually graduate. The numbers, however, are quite different for those who attended a for-profit institution or left without obtaining a degree. Half of those who attended a for-profit school have loans exceeding $40,000, and they have the highest rates of default — nearly four times that of those who enroll in a four-year program at a public school. Nearly 40 percent of all debt holders didn’t graduate within six years, and are trying to pay off their loans without any of the wage benefits they were counting on when they took them out.
There’s also a problem with what people are choosing to study after they borrow the money. Nearly half of the humanities majors who participated in a recent Federal Reserve study says they wished they had studied something else, as did a significant chunk of social science majors. Put all of these pieces together, and it’s not surprising that about one in five Americans who went to college say it wasn’t worth it.
What American higher education needs
If you ask Sasse what the United States needs when it comes to higher education, you’ll likely hear a lot of the word “more.” More schools, more experimentation, more flexibility, more pricing models. “We just don’t have nearly a vibrant enough ecosystem of institutions,” he told us. “One of the fundamental problems with higher ed right now is that there are too few new entrants, and of those institutions that currently exist, there is a resistance internally and externally — because of the accreditors — to experimenting with different kinds of form.”
His home-state governor, Pete Ricketts, agrees. “The biggest thing that we need to focus on is how we can get more people the experience they need to take the jobs. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be the four-year degree,” he says. “Especially when you think about how many times people will be changing their careers.”
There were nearly 6,000 colleges and universities operating in the United States during the 2019-2020 school year — why isn’t that enough? Because too many of them operate in the same, outdated manner that graduates millions of students ill-equipped for a 21st-century career and boxes millions of others out from becoming students in the first place. “The vast majority of subject matter is not well served by three to four contact hours a week, 14 to 15 weeks a semester, eight semesters in sequence,” Sasse argues. “We’re headed to a world which is going to be better for humans. The pre-industrial era had more diversity around the way kids were taught. The digital era is going to have more diversity around the way kids are taught.”
What does that look like in practice? It means rethinking the traditional 25-to-1 and 30-to-1 homogenized student to teacher ratio that dominates classrooms at all levels. “Some stuff should be infinity-to-one,” the senator continues, describing the on- line learning modules Khan Academy has perfected over the years. “And a lot of stuff should be one-to-one, or three-to-one, or five-to-one, or internship and experiential learning, or travel.”
The pandemic — and the era of virtual commuting which it ushered in — should have provided schools ample opportunity to experiment with different models, improving both the quality and accessibility of their offerings. But most have failed to take advantage. “The median experience of an 18- to 24-year-old who’s in four-year higher education right now is a regional state university that’s more com- muter than residential,” Sasse says. “There’s a place for that model, but it should not be the paradigmatic model, the lack of thick community, and yet place-based. If you’re not going to have thick community, you should be able to be a lot more geographically flexible. And if you’re going to be tied to one place, there ought to be a lot of thickness and character development happening.”
Sasse points to the Global Executive MBA program at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business — which combines 10 days of immersive group travel each term with six to eight weeks of remote learning — as an example. “When they’re together, they’re intensely together,” he says. “But if they’re not physically together, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing synchronous. They just don’t try to get in a room for a 25- or 30-minute meeting, which doesn’t actually have thick community anyway. They just go ahead and make that part truly remote.”
But because he believes in a myriad of approaches to meet a myriad of student needs, Sasse was hesitant to highlight one college or university that should serve as a template for all the others. He did, however, point to Purdue — run by Daniels — and Arizona State — run by Crow — as examples of schools that are experimenting with new models in hybrid learning.
Crow is very upfront with the fact that they’re trying a new approach. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have schools built on the notion of a British model of exclusivity,” he says. “But your big public universities should be something which is touching every family, touching every company, helping the hospitals to be successful, helping the social service organizations to be successful, helping the young entrepreneurs to be successful.”
Ben Sasse’s vision for American higher education
To bring about the systemic change that Sasse believes is necessary, the model of agility and adaptability embodied by Purdue and Arizona State will need to reach a lot more schools — including nonmarquee ones.
And although the landscape can seem hopeless, there are plenty of schools heed- ing that call. Just look at Midland University — a Lutheran liberal arts college located about 20 miles north of Omaha. The school’s total student population is just over 1,600, including 400 nontraditional students who have come back later in life for a degree or certificate program. Midland President Jody Horner described their motto as “relentlessly relevant.” It also survives by having innovative and thoughtful leaders like Horner, and her predecessor, who stepped down at the end of 2014 to represent Nebraska in the U.S. Senate.
Describing his time at Midland, Sasse sounded more proud of what his administration accomplished outside the realm of academics than what they did in it, tout- ing a 60 percent increase in the number of sports offered to students during his tenure, additional JV levels of competition and the introduction of a performing arts initiative for students interested in theater, choir and band. “A huge part of what an institution like (Midland) rightly recognizes is that a huge part of the character development and the learning that happens from 18 to 20 and 20 to 22 isn’t just in the classroom,” he says. “It’s in the dining hall, it’s in the residence hall, it’s on the field, track, mat, stage and those kinds of places where you learn plural vocations are critically important to the full development of a human.”
“We were institution building there be- cause we were community building.”
If Sasse’s vision for American higher education is ever realized, recreating that sense of community on campuses and in classrooms around the country will have been key. Because, although his salary is now paid by taxpayers, his view on where change happens has remained constant.
“Our shared, common problem with com- ing of age (is) a public problem that individual families will rarely be able to address sufficiently on their own in isolation, and yet not the sort of problem that government power will be able to solve either,” his book concludes. “We need to be able to tell (our young people) that they are important, to be able to say to them: ‘You’re needed.’ That re- quires people who know them and have a feel for their history and their future.”