The Coming Death and Future Resurrection of American Higher Education
by Richard J. Bishirjian.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 121 pages, $22.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bittner

The Coming Death and Future Resurrection of American Higher Education is the story of an online university founded by Dr. Richard Bishirjian, a self-described education entrepreneur. Established in 2000, the purpose of Yorktown University was to offer education consumers in America a different option when it came to their college experience. Bishirjian soon discovered that it is no easy task to challenge the education establishment in America, and though ultimately defeated in his purpose, he tells his story with an honesty and urgency that is both cautionary and encouraging.

There was a time when education in America was concerned with the cultivation of character and virtue. Initiative and hard work paved the way to success. As a result, the country generally flourished with a prosperous and responsible citizenry. Unfortunately, this is no longer so, asserts Bishirjian. Control of the higher education system by the education “cartel” has resulted in rising tuition costs, intellectually deficient courses, and an accreditation and regulatory system desperately in need of reform. The Bush and Obama administrations represent to Bishirjian years of lost time and wasted opportunities. So great was Bishirjian’s desire for change that he took it upon himself to create a for-profit online university. And so, Yorktown University was born.

Bishirjian is unrelenting in his insistence that only total reform can save American higher education. Current trends had convinced him that a tidal wave of “creative destruction” is advancing upon the system. Only a few examples are needed to illustrate this: In Pennsylvania alone four-year totals for college are as high as $249,472—and this among a population with a discretionary yearly income of only $2,075! Education costs have risen six times that of other costs, such as clothing and food. Forty million Americans carry tuition-loan debt totalling $1.2 trillion. It was clear to Bishirjian that American consumers deserved a choice. Yorktown University provided that choice: a for-profit online college platform offering high tech, affordable, and practical courses of study. In a capitalist society such a university should be welcomed, but Yorktown’s founder greatly underestimated the hostility he would encounter.

The deplorable current state of education finance and regulations can be traced to the Higher Education Act of 1965. The cultural and social revolts of the sixties greatly eroded traditional education structures. Increasing reliance on the government resulted in a Leftist tendency in academia. Bishirjian notes the limited experience, exaggerated self-worth, and intolerance that often marked this Leftist leaning in the classroom and administrative offices. The situation has only deteriorated. In 2010 private sector–backed loans were replaced by solely government-backed loans. Bishirjian detects in this an attack on for-profit colleges that would resist offering Title IV loans, a loan type infamous for its default rates. Socialist thought in America is nothing new, but the blatant attack on universities that prefer not to submit to every whim and dictate of the federal government in matters of education is recent and alarming.

Education after all, Bishirjian points out, is not once expressly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. In keeping with the spirit of that time, he believes that this omission leaves matters of education to the states themselves; therefore it is not within the realm of the federal government. Bishirjian is adamant that if even a small amount of the funds for Title IV loans were given back to the states there would be an undeniable boon to both individual and professional interests within the states. As it is, consumers across the nation are attending four-year colleges for courses that could easily (and more advantageously) be taught at vocational schools or even at the high school level. Education with a goal toward bettering local communities is being supplanted by high-cost college classes focusing on dance, athletic training, fashion merchandising, and sport management.

Yorktown University found like-minded individuals within the Intercollegiate Studies Institute who were willing to assist in teaching courses. Yet this alone was not enough. Bishirjian made the difficult decision to leave Virginia, home of the spirit of ’76 but also of prohibitive bureaucracy, for the adventuresome and welcoming Western spirit of Colorado. For some eight years Yorktown University was left in peace in Colorado, a state boasting lighter regulatory laws. Soon eleven courses were accredited under Yorktown’s academic offering and the future looked bright. However, 2010 ushered in a policy that required online universities to acquire accreditation in all states. The policy was untenable for a small university with no physical campus and was clearly a further attempt to discourage the working of the free market in American higher education.

Despite the lack of affordable online options for today’s ever-growing and evolving education consumer, the call continues: Go to college! College has become a “human right,” but Bishirjian sees through this emotionally charged call. With American higher education tidily in the pocket of the education establishment, what this really means is “giving everyone the opportunity to support a bloated, contradictory, bureaucratic higher education system by incurring large amounts of student loan debt.” It is a game most students cannot win.

Reform is made more difficult by the fact that education investors are more inclined to invest abroad to escape the quagmire that domestic options present. After all, simply “buying” a college on the market hardly makes one an expert in the operation of it, especially distance-learning platforms. Bishirjian is honest concerning his own abilities in this regard. Despite great professional success assisting in the transfer of public interests to the private sector, establishing a successful online distance-learning platform was a monumental task. Many online education ventures failed on account of difficulties presented by age, inefficient video lectures, lack of tech support, indifference to web resources, and obstacles to classroom discussions. Add to these difficulties the bureaucratic traps left and right, as well as the requirement to measure learning “outcomes” in value-neutral terms, and the result is often defeat.

To Bishirjian, disposing of education that defines truths and realities in favor of metaphysical propositions results in nothing less than the closure of the mind. The battle is ideological. Though he believes the coming death of American higher education is imminent, Bishirjian is also hopeful in a resurrection as well, where education consumers revolt and demand better, success-driven options for their future. Many who are well-versed in the education “process” both at the federal and university level are far too vested in the corruption and ideology of the times, while many individuals in the education arena lack the foresight and courage to stand against the times and their peers.

Yorktown University lost its hard-won accreditation in 2012; in 2016 the university was closed. Underestimation of the challenges of distance learning is one fault Bishirjian fully owns; one rarely escapes bruising when testing the powers that be. For Bishirjian the hard fact remains: higher education has been reduced to mere training in America, training that costs a pretty penny. Total reform is necessary to salvage anything, but if this is not possible, he does believe that higher education in America can one day rise, like the phoenix from the ashes.

Bishirjian offers thirteen ways to reform higher education. A few of his suggestions:

  • Prohibit members of Congress from holding positions within colleges.
  • Allocate a percentage of Title IV loans to the states in block grants.
  • Abolish the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Form political action committees.

“Our federal agencies are no longer ours,” Bishirjian declares. His thirteen ways are avenues by which the people may regain their voice and take back ownership of their government.

There are still many Christian private colleges and universities that offer a worthwhile education in America, and Bishirjian acknowledges and commends them. However, options for online for-profit universities are difficult to find. Though Bishirjian warns of the “creative destruction” underway in American higher education, he does not believe it will have the final word. The story of Yorktown University is a cautionary tale, but one that also provides a road map for future endeavors. As with anything worthwhile, it is worth the utmost effort and sacrifice.  

Elizabeth Bittner holds a B.A. in political science from the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and a masters degree in the humanities from the University of Dallas. She currently resides with her husband in rural Missouri.