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Many Political Battles Over Higher Education Boil Down to Money

Partisans dispute how, how much, or even whether, taxpayers should support colleges.

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The political fault lines of higher education extend far beyond headline-grabbing student protests and furor over controversial speakers.

In fact, that sound and fury often distracts from a more practical political issue facing higher education today: How should Americans pay for college? Should students themselves bear the full costs of their education or should taxpayers help keep costs low? And if so, how should the burden be apportioned between state and federal taxes?

“The culture war conversation takes our eye off what we really need to think about, which is access to affordable market-relevant credentials for everyone,” said Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education.

She and two other veteran observers of higher education political battles outlined important context and history for dozens of local, state, and regional reporters attending an Education Writers Association seminar at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in September.

Starving out the ‘citadels of progressivism’

Politics is a key driver of conservative opposition to public funding of higher education, suggested Neal McCluskey, the director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

McCluskey, who clarified that he identifies as a libertarian, not necessarily as a conservative, said he believes one reason conservatives have opposed funding of higher education is the ongoing suspicion that colleges and universities are “citadels of progressivism.”

Reed questioned the political consistency of those who discount the value of a college education and balk at supporting access to college for disadvantaged Americans.

“I am concerned when we see more and more people who are policy leaders asking the question ‘Is college for everyone?’ when they certainly are pursuing college for their children.”

The Politics of State Support

Today’s political divisions over higher education funding mark a significant change, since public support of higher education used to be fairly bipartisan. Up until about the 1970s, for example, most state governments provided enough funding to keep tuition at many public colleges affordable for nearly everyone.

The average annual public university tuition in 1972 was just $500 (the equivalent of $3,010 in today’s dollars), according to the College Board.

But now, “the political will to create the resources necessary” at the state level to expand access to higher education “isn’t there in many places,” said Michael Mitchell, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in the nation’s capital.

CBPP data shows that despite a 10-year economic expansion, most states provide smaller tax subsidies per college student today than they did before the 2008 recession. One reason: the expansion hasn’t been uniform. One-fifth of states are bringing in less revenue now than they did before the economic downturn, hampering spending on key public services, including higher education, he said.

To make up for the reduction in tax support, public universities have dramatically raised tuition. The average public four-year college now charges $10,230 per year for in-state students – more than triple, even after subtracting out inflation – the cost in the early 1970s.

The Politics of ‘Free’ College

Even states that have launched expensive free-college or massive scholarship programs are experiencing political divisions. State “Hope” scholarship programs for high-achieving students, for example, are often funded by lottery revenues.  Those programs have come under fire because “you essentially have money being funneled to a more white, more affluent set of students that’s being paid by folks” who are typically lower-income and people of color, Mitchell said.

Political and budgetary troubles have had profound economic effects in states such as Louisiana, which slashed spending on higher education more forcefully than all but one other state since the recession. That reduction in the state subsidy has forced Louisiana community colleges to nearly double tuition in the past decade when adjusted for inflation. Higher tuition costs can’t help but reduce the public’s access to what is “supposed to be the open door, the most affordable” option,  Reed said.

Ironically, Louisiana’s reduced financial support for higher education came even as state officials there set a goal of having 60 percent of Louisiana adults possess a college degree or certificate by 2030. That’s ambitious: As of 2017, almost half of Louisiana’s population hadn’t taken a single college course. Nationwide, 63 percent of Americans have at least some college credits.

But Louisiana and many other states are setting higher educational goals because employers increasingly demand workers with higher skills. One 2016 study found that 99 percent of the jobs created in the economic recovery went to workers with at least some college education.

Should the Feds Make College More Affordable?

Some of the holes left by state disinvestment have been filled by federal dollars. The federal government already spends more than $90 billion on higher education, mostly in the form of grants, veterans’ education benefits, tax breaks, and subsidies for student loans, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Now, numerous political candidates, ranging from Democratic presidential hopefuls to Republican senatorial candidates, are proposing that the federal government step it up by, for example, forgiving tens of billions of dollars worth of federal student loans. In addition, many candidates across the political spectrum have proposed providing enough federal financial support so that certain types of colleges would be free.

But the very idea of federal spending on higher education isn’t universally agreed upon. McCluskey echoed the Cato Institute’s general stance that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t grant the federal government a role in higher education. He favors dismantling the U.S. Department of Education, a recurring theme in conservative corners (and a policy plank former GOP President Ronald Reagan pursued without success).

McCluskey also argued that more federal spending would be wasteful because it would lead to higher costs for college students.

“Colleges in part raise their prices because they can,” he said.

McCluskey cited the controversial Bennett Hypothesis, put forward in the 1980s by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, which theorizes that federal spending increases tuition. Research since then has found, at most, only a modest connection between increases in financial aid and tuition, however.

The Politics of Accountability

Other higher education policies are also being affected by long-running philosophical debates, such as those over the fundamental purpose of higher education. Should colleges focus on producing productive workers or “good” citizens?

One example: the way politics has impacted efforts to ensure students that their time in college will have some sort of earnings payoff. The Obama administration imposed tough accountability rules on for-profit career training programs that left alumni with student loans a high proportion couldn’t pay back.

The Trump administration has since then rolled many of those rules back. It has instead started publishing data showing the labor market outcomes for students from all types of higher education programs, in the hopes that students would vote with their feet and reward the programs with the best economic outcomes.

“How do we even distinguish which programs are the vocational ones and which aren’t, when the liberal arts are saying: ‘Take our program and you’ll get a job because you’ve learned how to think,’” McCluskey asked.

With election season in full swing and U.S. higher-education debt larger than the economy of Spain, it remains to be seen whether the federal role in education is due for a seismic shift. Whatever the outcome, expect plenty of political rumblings as we head closer to Decision Day 2020.