I’ve been spending a bit of time in the United States the last couple of weeks (Indianapolis, Boston, Washington DC), and one of the things I’m noticing is the extent to which political discourse – which, ludicrously, already centers around the 2016 Presidential Race – is focussed on issues in higher education. Specifically: issues of tuition and student debt.
This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s an enormous shift from about ten years ago, when higher education first started to inch into the news. Back then, it was about competitiveness: how can we use higher education to gain a march on all these various Asian countries (usually India and China) who suddenly appear to be eating Americans’ lunch. Back then, higher ed was relishing the attention – finally, a Sputnik moment, to push higher education back to the forefront of the political debate (Sputnik being a positive thing in American higher education, because it brought about a huge burst of spending on university science). Now, no one is talking about a higher education bonanza. No one is talking about quality. To the extent anyone is talking about putting up new public money, it is meant to be used to make education more affordable.
(In Canada, of course, we’re way ahead of them. This is the feed-the-student-starve-the-
On the Democratic side, it’s President Obama’s proposal for free college tuition that is setting the tone of the debate. Bernie Sanders, trying to outflank Hillary Clinton to the left, has been an outspoken proponent. Martin O’Malley (remember Mayor Carcetti, from The Wire? He’s based on O’Malley), the only other semi-serious contender, talks about “debt-free college”, but his actual policy proposals involve expanding and improving income-based repayment, and allowing college students to refinance their loans at lower rates of interest. Clinton, meanwhile, has said she supports Obama’s free college plan, but then went on to say that debt is caused by more than tuition, which implies that her thinking actually lies in other areas (most likely: more Pell grants, more tax credits, and tougher regulation of for-profits).
Action on the Democratic side of the ledger isn’t all that surprising: they’ve owned the higher education file since 1992, when Bill Clinton became the first ever candidate to successfully campaign on the issue. What’s more interesting is the amount of attention being paid to higher education by Republican candidates.
Among currently declared candidates, Marco Rubio has shown the most audacity, backing a relatively serious access and completion agenda. He has co-sponsored legislation backing so-called “human capital loans”, and has also called for the creation of a national unit-record data base to collect better data on student outcomes. This has made him something of a darling among centrist wonks who think he might herald a new age of bipartisanship in higher education.
That may be clutching at straws: a number of other Republican candidates seem to be trying to run based on their ability to beat the living crap out of colleges: Governors Jindal (Louisiana) and Walker (Wisconsin) both introduced stonking cuts to higher ed in their budgets this year, mostly to show how tough they are on feckless elites (a Republican meme that goes back to Ronald Reagan’s successful 1966 run for the California Governor’s office).
The presence of differences in policy thinking in both parties means it’s sure to be a topic of debate right through the primaries (i.e. for another ten months or so). Stay tuned.