We recently reported that Moody’s Investor Service recently gave American institutions of higher learning a failing grade.

Minding the Campus contributor KC Johnson analyses the report in depth, and comes to some troubling conclusions.

To the extent, then, that Moody’s forecast about a possible tuition squeeze is correct, the likely impact is doubly ominous. First, the development will deny needed financial resources, especially at non-elite institutions that lack large endowments. Second, a fear of losing students will enhance the internal power of student life bureaucracies, who will argue that student retention (and preserving scarce tuition dollars) requires more student life bureaucrats.

Moody’s finding regarding a diminution of state and (to a lesser extent) federal support seems likely even if the economy suddenly improves. Over the past generation, as politics have become increasingly polarized and partisan, higher education has moved consistently in one ideological and partisan direction. (At my home institution of CUNY, the faculty union is notorious for refusing even to reach out to Republican state legislators, even as the GOP controls the New York state Senate.) Universities are perfectly free, of course, to create race/class/gender-dominated faculty and adamantly commit themselves to “diversity” as their preeminent goal. But it should come as little surprise that colleges with such an agenda will tend to isolate themselves politically–meaning that, in hard economic times, as legislators have to make tough choices over what programs to fund, state governments will fund other, more politically popular, programs.

Finally, Tuby’s speculation about a possible increased “public and political scrutiny of colleges and universities” might be promising: while politicians can and must respect principles of academic freedom on campus, state legislatures have an important role to play in improving higher education–at the least by ensuring that trustees do their job as part of the principle of shared governance, at the most through a more aggressive legislative oversight role, bringing transparency to campus personnel and curricular decisions that advocates of the status quo would prefer remain in the stealth.

Unfortunately, I suspect that increased public and political scrutiny will likely yield calls for colleges and universities to demonstrate that students are fulfilling stated “learning objectives,” a development borne out of the business community and a call for universities to concretely demonstrate how students are learning. But the concept of “outcomes assessment” too often has been a cover either for anti-intellectual instruction that de-emphasizes content or a method to conceal politically correct curricula on grounds that students are learning “skills.”

In short, there’s little promising and much potentially troubling in the Moody’s report.