Dumbing Us Down: The GOP’s Assault on Higher Education

Like its wars on contraception and the rights of labor, the GOP has another traditionally Democratic concern in its cross-hairs: college education.  This conservative assault is unfolding on several fronts, combining manipulation of who and how many people get a college education with infiltration of the educational system to directly indoctrinate college students.  Republicans are cutting vital financial aid programs while allowing student debt to increase.  To exploit the students now priced out of traditional higher education, GOP representatives like Senator Mike Enzi and presidential candidates like Rick Santorum promote fraudulent, for-profit colleges and universities, the same businesses that have been exposed by the Government Accountability Office not once, but twice for deceptive practices, exploiting the financial aid system, and allowing plagiarism. Behind the scenes, wealthy GOP donors have used their money to buy up traditional university departments, gaining decision-making privileges in hiring faculty and determining curriculum.

Since 1999, loan debt for students has increased by 511% to the point where this debt total is nearing $1 trillion dollars, more than even household credit card debt. That works out to an average of $25,000 per student as of 2010. And so fresh on the heels of last Fall’s Occupy-related protests against the growing burden of student debt, the GOP-led Congress is going to let student loan interest rates double this summer. This comes after they negotiated to cut Pell Grants for approximately 100,000 low income students in December. The Obama Administration has responded to the student debt crisis with some minor interventions that include fractionally lower interests rates for some borrowers, lower monthly payments for the lowest income borrowers, and some debt forgiveness for people willing to put in at least ten years commitment to non-profits or in public service jobs. President Obama has also spoken up about the high costs of higher education and called on colleges and universities to find ways to make higher education affordable. Despite the fact that these are small, reasonable steps toward helping relieve the burden of skyrocketing tuition on young people, the right wing has managed to label them student loan “bailouts” and proceeded to whine about them. For example, Human Events and Reason.com each have posts complaining about the alleged high price to taxpayers of these student loan programs and each claim that Obama is buying votes from young voters.

One of the main reasons that students have to pay more for their education is that states have pulled back their financial support for higher education. Whereas states used to finance their public universities and community colleges, they have chosen to close budget gaps by reducing funding and passing costs along to students. Of course this disproportionately affects lower income students, who are more sensitive to changes to cost, and less and less able to even contemplate going to college.   Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that GOP efforts are working: due to tuition hikes and ballooning student debt, educational inequality between the rich and the poor has increased since 1980 with the gap in college completion rates rising by 50%. Rather than trying to close this educational gap, the GOP is proposing to increase it by additional cuts to Pell Grants, or even eliminating student loans altogether.

When they aren’t discouraging students who need financial aid and student loans from attending college, the GOP, via folks like Rick Santorum, is pushing them toward for-profit higher education. Despite showing this industry was taking advantage of students, particularly low income and less academically skilled students, the GAO’s original research was quickly denounced as “flawed” by the Senate after heavy pressure from the for-profit education lobby. A second more gentle GAO study still found the industry had significant issues with academic dishonesty, exit counseling, and online grading. Dana Goldstein’s article in the Nation pointed me to Christopher Brea, a journalist who investigated the for-profit higher education industry. Brea similarly found for-profit institutions offered an education with few marketable skills, a low rate of post-graduation employment, and a high rate a debt. All of this along with a high dropout rate from what seem to be mind-numbingly rote classes of little practical value.

While the GOP has worked to steer students away from college or into inferior colleges, theirs is a multi-pronged attack on higher education. They also have had operatives trying to buy what gets taught in colleges and universities. Donations to colleges are at near recording breaking levels. But investigations by Robert Greenwald and the Brave New Foundation have found that people like the Koch brothers have been donating millions of dollars with strings attached. Greenwald found nearly 150 colleges and universities were receiving donations from the Kochs where they have reserved the right to dictate decisions like faculty hiring and curriculum in exchange for their money. As the perennial evil-doers of the GOP, the Koch brothers are recognizable perpetrators of this insidious manipulation, but they are by no means alone; other wealthy conservatives have adopted this practice as well.

Ultimately, an undereducated populace benefits conservatives and the GOP. They need people with limited critical thinking skills to buy their chronic repackaging of trickle-down economics, denial of climate change, and narrow-minded views on social issues. When people go to college in high numbers, it threatens the conservative base as shown by Santorum’s comments this week regarding Obama’s higher education initiatives being a plot to create more liberals. The disdain the GOP has for making higher education accessible to middle class and poor students has never been clearer. Their willingness to serve yet another high power lobby exploiting vulnerable people, for-profit colleges and universities, is obvious. When higher education has a chance of exposing students to critical thinking, donors have inserted themselves into the process with propagandized curriculum.

On March 1, there will be a National Day of Action for Education sponsored by the Occupy movement. There are a lot of different gripes worth protesting, but some of the ones listed include privatization and corporatization of public education, re-segregation of schools, tuition increases, and student debt burdens. To these, we can add educational gaps between the rich and poor, profiteering on exploited populations, and financial manipulation of knowledge by wealthy people with an agenda.

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9 Replies to “Dumbing Us Down: The GOP’s Assault on Higher Education”

  1. Note (P)Rick Scott’s comment that anthropology is a frivolity, coupled by a crippling attack on state institutions’ funding. Of course, people like him hate anthropology, archeology, paleontology, sociology, and psychology: they all might incline their students to worldviews at variance with the Friedmanist/Dominionist one. Meanwhile, let us see that “the little people” get no more education- or better, training- than is needed to fit them to their proper (and humble) niche in the hierarchy, while those destined to control them are not tainted by any humanitarian or egalitarian “cultural Marxist” stuff…

  2. I would suggest that people look to Florida as an example of what they are willing to do. They’re cutting funding for higher education while at the same time providing more tax breaks for businesses who don’t hire anyone who was or is in a union and trying to set aside millions for things like sport centers. They’re trying to create a new university in this state – a Polytechnic, which as they interpret it means the hard sciences (forgetting that the social sciences are science too), technology (gotta come up with new toys and maintain the more expensive ones we already have), engineering (new stuff again – but you’re a glorified pencil-pusher and servant to the bosses), and math (thought to be valuable and needed for the others). Things like the social sciences are being left out, I’m waiting to see if Biology is going to be neglected as well, and the focus will be on creating new middle management and technical employees instead of teaching critical thinking. (If this proves to be accurate, then some nasty rumors are probably true – see below.)

    If the bill in the Florida House passes, all of the faculty and staff presently at USF Polytechnic will be summarily booted to the curb of the main USF campus, and they will all be replaced with new hires – which will not be allowed to have tenure OR anything but year-to-year contracts. This gives the politicians a great power over the faculty – teach what we want or you’re fired, and that’s what they’ve been trying to achieve for a long time. That’s why tenure is so important – it protects the teacher from being forced to teach lies (like creationism).

    Finally, I know that it was said publicly that anthropology will never be taught at USF Polytechnic. If there is ANY social science that belongs there, it would be anthropology, because at least the form we teach does almost purely applied research… applying science to solve social problems. I’ve heard twice that there are two reasons for the changes and the formation of “Florida Polytechnic” – the first to kill unions and the protection they give to ordinary people, the second because the churches don’t want their students exposed to those horrible things: Critical Thinking, Evolution, and about other cultures (including the tool Cultural Relativism). They want a university (besides the ersatz Pentecostal “university” in the county) that they can send their students to in order that they can get the good paying jobs – but where the church teachings remain inviolate.

    See my comment in this thread for an overview: http://politicususa.wpengine.com/en/push-democracy-beyond-the-ballot-box-in-2012

    Some links (including those mentioned in that thread)

    http://www.theledger.com/article/20120214/POLITICS/120219625/1003/news00?Title=Republicans-Add-Anti-Union-Rider-To-Tax-Break-Bill-&tc=ar

    http://www.theledger.com/article/20120215/NEWS/120219595/1338/news00?Title=New-State-Legislation-Increases-Difficulty-For-Those-Seeking-Adult-Education-&tc=ar

    http://www2.tbo.com/news/breaking-news/2012/feb/13/1/senate-plan-would-cut-usf-budget-a-devastating-58-ar-358274/

    http://www.wtsp.com/news/article/218798/250/Critics-say-powerful-state-senator-is-a-bully-hurting-USF

    http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/editorials/usf-in-crosshairs-of-vendetta/1215292

    http://www.usf.edu/budget2012/

    Plus there is lots of information at this site and in the one of the local papers: http://www.politicsinpolk.com/section/POLITICS01
    http://www.theledger.com/section/news00

    Plus they’re making it harder to pay off student loans, and if you’re unemployed it becomes even worse. My physical disabilities have made finding a job almost impossible since I graduated (I found some temporary work here and there, but that’s it) and the interest just keeps building on my loans, in spite of the new moves to try to alleviate the misery they cause. They’re trying to make it impossible for anyone who isn’t rich or falling in a narrow list of stereotypes to get a degree (much less a higher degree).

    Finally, I think an editor of the school newspaper reflected their true ideology about going to college. He told me in an email that unless I could pay for my education out-of-pocket, I didn’t belong there. When I told him that I had to return because I could no longer do the work I used to do, his reply was “What did you do to ruin your health?” So I told him a bit of my story, and he responded with an apology and saying that maybe I should be able to go to school after all.

    That’s their thinking: If you’re not rich enough to pay for it out-of-pocket (or your parents aren’t comfortable and you’re supported by mommy and daddy), you don’t belong in school.

    What really irritates me is that they’re doing everything to cut taxes for the big corporations and rich in this state, but making life far harder on the poor. Oh, and the legislature faced a bit of a choice (from Scott and his partners-in-crime): drastically cut social services (including Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and everything else that helps the poor, or cut education. Looks like they chose education – instead of raising taxes on the rich and the big corporations who already have it easy in this state.

  3. I’d point out that this is the last state that should be in climate denial. Remember the Suwannee Straits and Orange Isle? Well, they could be ba-a-a-ack…

  4. “Ultimately,an uneducated populace benefits conservatives and the GOP”
    I have posted this many times before,but here it is again,
    “The secret to freedom lies in educating people,whereas the secret to tryanny is in keeping them ignorant.” Maximilien Ropespierre

  5. When my parents went to school, a high school graduate from the general curriculum had some grounding in algebra, geometry, chemistry or physics, biology, enough shop or home ec to maintain themselves in the simpler aspects of life, history,and civics. Someone who went to a vo-tech graduated with competence in a marketable skill. Now, even our two-year colleges don’t do that, and education becomes increasingly skimpy and unaffordable for the ordinary citizen even as a comprehensive education becomes more necessary for participation in civilized life.

  6. Long ago (six decades, at least) a child-raising advisor who wrote under the name Angelo Patri urged that public school systems include free summer camps for city kids. In those Red-baiting days, although it was never implemented, no one called him a Commie for it; now, just promoting free public schooling gets you called a militant atheist secular humanist baby- killing child-corrupting cultural Marxist enemy of God.

  7. When I was in High School, it was the same… and while some of the guys thought learning things like how to cook (or wash clothes or whatever) was beneath them, they quickly were set straight. Luckily, I’d learned all those things long before – cooking as a kid, and as a young teen I would run the family laundromat when my grandmother and her husband would take vacations.

    The education kids get today… I don’t have a high opinion of it. First, because of FCAT, they’re just taught to take tests. (How many times did I hear “Is this going to be on the test?” from undergraduates!!!) Second, most of them know how to use tools such as calculators and computers, but they don’t have a clue about the concepts that they’re bypassing. My wife and I have often said that they should start kids off with the basics… doing it by hand, and then by machine. My wife’s statistics teacher did it that way… taught the students how to figure the different statistics by hand and THEN use the calculator. The theory and practice REALLY sank in that way.

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