Christian Barnard writes for the Martin Center about a conservative approach to higher education.

It’s no secret that higher ed reformers have struggled to offer a compelling alternative to free college and loan forgiveness offered from the left. This failure is partially because conservatives and libertarians are usually on the defensive about higher ed policy.

In response to that problem, the American Enterprise Institute organized a panel discussion titled “The Next Conservative Higher Education Agenda,” to argue about higher education policies conservatives should support. Rick Hess, AEI’s director of education policy studies, opened the discussion by framing the panel as a chance to talk about what conservatives are for, not what they’re against.

The discussion ranged from hot-button topics like student loan forgiveness and free speech on campus to more technical concerns about accreditation practices and how to “unbundle” degree programs to cut costs and improve quality. Altogether, the panelists offered a reasonable and viable narrative to compete with the left.

The discussion centered around three important issues:

  • How to make college more affordable
  • What should be done about federal student loan debt; and
  • How to protect free speech and academic freedom

Some of the most interesting ideas from the AEI event emerged when panelists discussed how to expand access to a college degree. They argued that conservatives should focus on innovation and transparency rather than criticizing more government spending to fund free college or lower tuition costs.

Andrew C. Kelly, senior vice president of strategy and policy for the University of North Carolina system, promoted the idea of unbundling college education services. As many students pay full tuition for online-only classes and fees for health, career counseling, and other on-campus services they can’t access, the pandemic has highlighted how college services need not be packaged into a single “take it or leave it” product.