Purdue University President Mitch Daniels and the Education Reforms We Need
Back in 2011, I was excited by the prospect that Indiana’s governor, Mitch Daniels, might run for president. I thought he had the right temperament and experience to do the job well.
Well, Daniels did become president…..of Purdue University.
This December, after ten years at the helm, Mitch Daniels will step down. In taking a moment to look at his legacy, we can better appreciate some of the reforms we need to expand economic opportunity and strengthen America.
Prior to Mitch’s arrival, Purdue had raised its tuition for 36 consecutive years. Since taking the reins, Daniels has held tuition at $9,992 for Indiana residents and $28,794 for out-of-state students, and he has cut room and board costs by five percent. The result: the cost of attending Purdue is lower than it was in 2013. Given the enormous hike in tuition costs across America (in-state tuition and fees at public universities have increased 175 percent over the last two decades), this is quite an accomplishment.
Most universities pride themselves on limiting their education to a tiny handful of students each year. In this manner, elite schools trade on their exclusivity. Daniels took the opposite approach, expanding educational opportunities to reach more and more Americans. In 2020, Purdue welcomed a record 45,869 students. As Andrew Ferguson writes in The Atlantic, a virtuous cycle took place: the low tuition attracted more students, creating a larger student body that brought in more revenue; this allowed for the hiring of more faculty; alumni, delighted at the achievements of their alma mater, donated more, which helped keep the freeze in place.
When considering how Daniels cut administrative staff to keep costs low, it’s instructive to compare Purdue with Yale. In 2003, when 5,307 undergraduate students studied at Yale, the school employed 3,500 administrators and managers. In 2019, the number of administrators had risen by more than 1,500. Indeed, Yale has more administrators than faculty.
Mitch Daniels hasn’t just kept Purdue’s costs in check, he has also advocated for a climate of free speech at a time when more than six in ten students say that the climate on campus has deterred them from saying what they believe. According to Daniels, “Freedom of inquiry is at the core of the academic enterprise, [because] knowledge advances only when ideas are free to collide and compete.” Every year, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) rates America’s colleges on their commitment to free speech. In FIRE’s most recent rankings, Purdue is ranked third in the country, just behind University of Chicago and Kansas State University.
While working as Purdue’s president, Daniels found the time to write a monthly column for the Washington Post. In an op-ed from 2019, Daniels argued for a domestic “study abroad” program at college campuses to help heal America’s cultural and political polarization. Noting that most schools offer opportunities for students to earn credits by traveling to a foreign country, Daniels pushed for a similar program that would encourage students to visit different parts of America.
This is a great idea. In America, we have self-sorted ourselves into like-minded communities: in 1976, only 26 percent of Americans lived in counties where one party’s presidential candidate won by 20 points or more; by 2004, about 48 percent of the electorate lived in these landslide counties; in 2016, this number rose up to 80 percent. According to a Pew study, roughly 40 percent of registered voters in both political parties said they did not have a single close friend who supported the other major party candidate. As David French observes, “Many of us now fear the transfer of power to the other side because the other political side is separate and different. Enmity builds because we don’t know anyone like them and can’t understand them.”
Mitch Daniels’s legacy as a reformer should also inspire us to tackle the problem of “credentialism." If we're serious about expanding economic mobility for all Americans, we should stop turning away job applicants with requisite skills simply because they lack a piece of paper. Consider how Washington, D.C. announced that, by the end of 2022, directors of child care centers will need a bachelor’s degree in early education, teachers at child care centers will need an associate’s degree in early education, and assistant teachers will need a child development associate’s credential.
It’s terrific if some early-childhood centers in Washington want to hire the most qualified instructors and want to pay them a pretty penny for their services. And, by all means, it is great if wealthy families want to send their children to centers with the best trained staff. But it is a mistake to force every child care center to only hire people with degrees, and it is a mistake to think that only adults with degrees can do a good job caring for small children. These rules will not only kick qualified caregivers out of the industry, these regulations will increase tuition costs for families with children.
This is just one example of degree inflation. In many parts of the economy, we see a rising demand for bachelor degrees in jobs that previously required high school degrees, a rising demand for master degrees in jobs that previously required bachelor degrees, and a rising demand for PhDs in jobs that previously required master degrees. In 2016, CareerBuilder conducted a nationwide survey and found that 27 percent of employers were recruiting master's degree holders for positions traditionally staffed by those with four-year degrees and 37 percent were hiring college graduates for positions that had been held primarily by those with high-school diplomas.
Taking a page from a reformer like Daniels, we ought challenge the status quo by asking why every bachelor degree has to be four years? After all, graduate programs having different lengths— law degrees require three intense years of education, whereas medical degrees take four years and MBA degrees only take two years.
Those wanting to teach high school physics and those wanting to teach kindergarten should have the option to pursue different degree timetables. While it makes sense that an eighteen-year-old who wants to teach high school physics should have master the topic of physics by majoring or minoring in physics, what of an eighteen-year-old who wants to teach kindergarten?
The prospective kindergarten teacher needs classes in early childhood education, to be sure. But the status quo demands that an aspiring kindergarten teacher spend tens of thousands of dollars taking credits in a range of subjects at a four-year accredited institution. Why not build a system where the eighteen-year-old can focus all her time and money on studying early childhood education from the get go? Instead of the forcing the aspiring teacher to spend four years getting a bachelors degree and an extra year getting the masters degree, why not devise an early-childhood education certificate that is two or three years of intense learning? Better yet, why not develop a system where a prospective teacher can apprentice at an elementary school while also taking classes in early childhood education?
It’s a very expensive proposition to require that eighteen-year-olds wander around for a few years on costly college campuses to figure out what they want to do. Why penalize an youngster who knows exactly what he wants to do and doesn’t want to spend tens of thousands on classes that don’t help him to reach his professional goal?
While I’m disappointed that Mitch Daniels is leaving Purdue, I’m excited by the fact that Senator Ben Sasse is retiring from Congress and is heading south to become president of the University of Florida. In an essay in The Atlantic, Sasse argues for “stackable micro-certifications that people can carry with them as they move between jobs.” These micro-certifications (or micro-badges) would signal to employers the possession of specific skills and competencies. I’m also energized by the reform agenda that President Pano Kanelos is implementing at the brand new University of Austin in Austin, Texas. Not only will UATX offer a more affordable tuition model by doing away with expensive amenities and administrators, it will also revamp the entire academic experience.
In closing, I ask you to consider two hypothetical college freshman. One is an eighteen-year-old who just finished high school and did well on the AP exams. Another is a twenty-six year-old who just finished eight years of military service, including a few years serving in Afghanistan. According to the status quo, the high school student enters college with a college credits but the veteran, who gained experience with technology, leadership, communication, and teamwork, doesn’t get any college credit for his experiences.
It’s time we get creative and find ways to move past this idea that the only way to get ahead in America is by spending time and money sitting in a classroom racking up an abstract thing called college credit. It’s time we challenge the education-industrial-complex.