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How Will Higher Education Fare in the National Elections?

filled convention hall, lit stage

Let the games begin.

As we prepare for the negotiated spectacle that will play out at both political conventions, these staged reality television moments will also be set against a backdrop of heightened social, cultural, racial, and economic tensions. America has not seemed as divided nor as tribal since the 1960s.

What will this whirlwind of emotion, rhetoric, and anti-intellectualism mean for American higher education?

To begin, it might be best to take a step back to recognize that the federal government has done and can do enormous good.

It was the government that brought us the GI Bill. It was the government that brought us advances like Title IV and Title IX, protecting basic rights to encourage access and equality. These improvements shaped and refined our approach to American higher education. Collectively, they are a powerful statement of what responsible government can accomplish for its citizens.

There is always an open question on what national political platforms mean to governance. They may not reflect the views of the candidate nor the political realities faced by a new administration. But in a strange election cycle where the rule of reason and the basic social courtesies no longer seem to apply, we might be wise to establish a few general parameters by which to read the tea leaves a little early.

First, the operating principle guiding political positioning on American higher education must be to do no harm.

It’s always presumed that national political candidates have benefited from a blizzard of white papers and informed conversations on various education issues. It is further assumed that a coherent governing philosophy emerges from these think tank moments upon which national political leaders can graft sound education program and practice.

There’s a lot to worry about here. The Democrats have a clearer program and their platform is likely to move the presumed nominee further to the left. The Republicans seem to have little definition to their higher education goals. It’s a “who’s on first” moment for both sides with some uncertainty about viewpoints and what will prevail.

Second, let’s understand what we propose.

This is where the philosophical meets the practical. It’s one thing to offer free ice cream for everyone, since almost everyone likes ice cream. But at some point – free public tuition is an outstanding example – both the cost and the impact must be thoroughly vetted.

Who will pay for this “free” tuition? With student/counselor ratios of 1000/1 at some community colleges already, how can a massive influx of new public college students receive the counseling necessary to match the financial resources to the needed graduation outcomes? Do we really want to choke the system further?

Who will build the facilities and hire the faculty and staff beyond what new tuition dollars can reasonably provide?

Do we really want to transfer students in big private college states to public higher education if it is cheaper for the government to educate students at private colleges, supported by grant and loan programs? What would be the impact on local and regional economies?

What’s best for public and private higher education in the long run, already underfunded and weighed down by a massive collection of contradictory and expensive state and federal rules and regulations?

It’s not enough to propose new government programs developed from polling and anecdote. If America wants to improve higher education access and outcomes, its leadership should understand the situation far better than the language used to argue for the programs proposed in the recent primary battles.

Third, rather than approach how to make improvements to American higher education through sweeping programs that a deficit-ridden government cannot afford, it might be better to think about what can be done.

This approach presumes three conditions.

  • The first is that national political candidates ask higher education’s leadership what it needs. One answer will likely be regulatory relief that costs far less than free ice cream.
  • The second is that the new political leadership must be willing to examine which programs work best when measured against their stated policy goals.
  • And the third will be to figure out how the government can offer new programs within available discretion that better serve current students seeking to gain access, debt relief, and employment.

Of course, if the current political dysfunction continues, much of the conversation will go nowhere. Americans must ultimately prevail over their elected officials to demand that things get done. If this requires incremental steps, it may be that less is more. But less is better than nothing.

The alternative is an inward-looking, deeply divided America going forward that is a mockery of the promise that made higher education possible for so many of its citizens.