Maxwell: The partisan divide over higher education

Published August 2 2018
Updated August 3 2018

For generations, most Americans, Republicans and Democrats, accepted the conventional wisdom that higher education serves the greater good.

That notion has changed on both sides of the political divide. While both now argue that higher education is headed in the wrong direction, they sharply disagree about why.

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that 61 percent of Americans believe that higher education is on the wrong track. Roughly three-fourths of Republicans say so, with 52 percent of Democrats saying the same.

The survey results are similar to those of other recent surveys and studies. It finds Republicans worry that so-called liberal politics and progressive social views are destroying the nationís college and university campuses. They distrust the material and ideas that most professors espouse, believing that much of what is taught is bad for the nation. Democrats disagree.

Republicans also believe that professors, with the support of too many administrators, harm students by protecting them from potentially offensive viewpoints. For Republicans, this is a matter of curbing "free speech," preventing conservative scholars and public intellectuals from voicing their opinions.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in line with Republicans in the survey, said recently at a national gathering of conservatives that todayís college students are "sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes."

Democrats disagree, with some arguing that visits by radical conservative speakers are meant to be disruptive to gain attention among their supporters.

Issues involving ethnic and racial diversity also divide Republicans and Democrats. While liberal college students and Democrats in general value diversity on our campuses, large numbers of conservative students and Republicans in general do not.

The attitudes of Democrats and Republicans about higher education are best seen in how our colleges and universities and their various programs are being funded.

A new report by the American Federation of Teachers, A Decade of Neglect: Public Education Funding in the aftermath of the Great Recession, shows that since the 2008 recession, 41 states have implemented austerity measures reducing spending per college student. But this belt-tightening isnít bringing the improvements and savings first envisioned.

"While state support has declined, the overall average cost of attending college has risen," according to the report. "Tuition costs for two-year colleges are up by an average 36 percent, and for four-year colleges, they are up by an average 40 percent, even after adjusting for inflation."

The worst offenders, according to the report, are states with Republican governors where low-tax policies have hit colleges and universities especially hard.

Making matters worse, the Republican-led Congress is writing austerity policies because of the tax cuts enacted by the Trump administration. Trumpís tax cuts, the report states, will cost $1.9 trillion. This massive reduction will bring greater divestment in public education.

The report states that "blaming our current fiscal situation on the recession alone ignores the fact that states, mostly those controlled by Republican governors and state legislators, made things worse by pushing tax cuts for the wealthy. These tax cuts for the very rich have drained state budgets of the resources needed to support our nationís schools."

Perhaps one result of the austerity policies is the steady rise in college tuition. As schools tighten their belts, they must find new sources of revenue. More often than not, tuition is first item to increase.

The Pew survey states that 92 percent of Democrats cited high tuition as a major concern, and 56 percent of Democrats worry that too many students are not learning workplace skills. On the other side, 77 percent of Republicans cited high tuition as a major concern, and 73 percent said studentsí not learning workplace skills was a big problem.

Intended or not, according to the American Federation of Teachers report, the GOPís cuts in public education spending has produced an increase in enrollment at for-profit colleges and universities.

What to do? Many experts say that if the tax-cutting measures continue, higher education will continue go in the wrong direction.