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.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.