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Higher Education Faces a Turning Point

The right's opportunistic obsession with left-wing bias at U.S. colleges and universities threatens to destroy one of the pillars of national unity.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

Late last month, President Trump spoke at an event for Turning Point USA, a right-wing student rights organization that has spent years fomenting a culture war against higher education. Trump entered to his campaign song, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” and spent almost the entirety of his 90 minutes onstage ranting about the wall, socialism, his dislike of “the squad,” and what he calls the Mueller “witch hunt.” At one point an attendee even shouted, “Lock her up.”

This wasn’t some Trumpian aberration. TPUSA events have little to do with education. The group, which boasts 1,400 branches in colleges and high schools across all 50 states, is part of a larger right-wing political strategy organized around the most salient crisis facing higher-ed policy today: The effort to erode a patch of cultural common ground and reshape it in the mold of identity politics. This raises the concern that higher ed—until recently one of the few policy areas not mired in hyper-partisanship—will become just another political football.

It’s terrible timing. For years, both parties cooperated on the Higher Education Act, the comprehensive law governing all aspects of higher ed, from loans and federal student aid to Title IX, from for-profit regulation to free speech. The law sets critical regulatory standards, but it hasn’t been reauthorized in eleven years and expired in 2015. Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has worked closely with his Democratic counterpart, Senator Patty Murray of Washington. Alexander is terming out of his chairmanship and has dedicated himself to this bill, which he sees as his legacy. Until recently, assessments of negotiations have been optimistic, but thanks in part to GOP demands for riders protecting free speech on campus, talks have stalled and people close to them now express doubts.

To wit, one of the only policy-oriented points Trump mentioned Tuesday was his recent, symbolic, executive order about free speech on campus. “I’ve instructed federal agencies to hold public colleges and universities accountable,” said the president, adding, with authoritarian flair, that schools that seek “billions and billions of dollars” in federal aid won’t get it if they don’t comply with his administration’s dictates on speech.

“The forces of political correctness want to silence conservative students on campus,” he continued. “They want to make you feel alone, silenced, and marginalized.” This sounds ominously like another divisive campaign theme—but perhaps one where Trump thinks he can play both sides.

While a small population of college-educated conservatives see the president as their defender, the fact is Trump polls highest among whites without a college degree. By elevating the issue of campus speech, he manages to appeal to college-age and college-educated supporters while dirtying and dismissing the value of higher education to his broader base.

And if that’s a strategy, it appears to be working. A 2017 Pew Research study found Republican support for higher-ed dropped more than 20 points in two years. “In 2015, 58 percent of Republicans thought that colleges and universities had a positive effect on the country,” according to Pew—relatively close to the 65 percent of Democrats who thought the same. But by 2017, only 36 percent of Republicans held that positive opinion (compared to 72 percent of Democrats). Strikingly, 58 percent of Republicans believe colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. Brandon Busteed of Gallup observed the same trend, and remarked in a Tavis Smiley interview that it was the most extraordinary partisan-linked shift in the history of Gallup’s polling.

The divisiveness is elevated by public figures from psych-professor-turned-social-media-star Jordan Peterson to Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos repeatedly hammers home similar points. Donald Trump Jr. joined the chorus at a rally for his father earlier this year, bashing “loser teachers trying to sell you on socialism from birth.” TPUSA events have hosted Fox News host Tucker Carlson, British Brexiteer Nigel Farage, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, along with Secretary DeVos.

But the claims of Socialist indoctrination are a myth. A 2015 Reason-Rupe poll found 58 percent of college-age Americans view socialism positively, which sounds high, but support for capitalism is about equal (56 percent). The poll also found college students overwhelmingly support free markets over socialist ones, 72 to 49 percent. The “crisis” in campus free speech is also a demonstrably false construct.

A college degree is empirically more valuable than it’s been in decades, but if higher education becomes a proxy for the unwinnable war over American political identity, Congress will never pass comprehensive legislation, the country won’t solve the student debt crisis, and, most critically, our institutions will languish. As the world shifts to increasingly favor knowledge- and research-based economies, the United States will fall behind. If trends hold, the U.S. is poised to be short five million college-educated workers by 2020.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Though GOP rhetoric will try to heighten the divisiveness during the 2020 campaign, there’s common ground on Capitol Hill (if for no other reason than U.S. elites of all political stripes still hail from, and hope to send their children to, the country’s best schools). And education’s soporific wonkitude works in its favor: Negotiations fly under the radar.

Still, it will take more than noblesse oblige and wishful inattention to save higher ed in America. While colleges and universities can commit to hiring a more demographically and politically diverse faculty, political leaders need to champion the values inherent in a great education: Exploration, experimentation, challenge, and debate, but also commonality and connection.