Since taking office, George W. Bush has been nearly mute on the topic of higher education. Only concerning affirmative action has the self-confessed Yale slacker expressed a position–that is, if “I favor diversity but oppose affirmative action” counts as a position. But with the Higher Education Act, which provides more than $80 billion in grants and loans and is up for renewal in 2004, this is soon to change. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that “a scathing critique” of higher education is likely early next year. As an unnamed Administration official bragged to the Washington Times this past spring, “If you thought the elementary and secondary education lobbyists squealed when we talked [about] accountability, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

“The College Cost Crisis,” a recent report from GOP Representative John Boehner’s education subcommittee, fires the first salvo. The report itself is a joke–its “analysis,” which relies heavily on quotes from newspaper editorials and quickie interviews with worried parents, wouldn’t pass muster as an undergraduate paper. And while “wasteful costs” can certainly be found–some schools are turning themselves into “Jacuzzi U” in the arms race for top students–the report neglects to mention the real budget-breakers: Big Science, competitive salaries and computerized information systems.

The White House plans to pin the blame on universities for making higher education unaffordable to students from low- and middle-income families, as well as for allowing too many students to drop out. A new report from the College Board finds that public universities and community colleges raised tuition by 14 percent this year, the highest rate in three decades. Although these increases mainly compensate for declining government support, the GOP believes that bashing colleges for what Boehner assails as “hyperinflation” is a political winner.

The Bush Administration and its friends in Congress have one thing right: Higher education is in deep trouble. But their proposed remedy would make things much worse. The trickledown economic mess has obliged almost every state to cut back on support for public universities, but Republicans are telling these cash-starved institutions to hold the line on tuition or lose millions of dollars in federal grants and loans (in fact, legislation has just been introduced that would do that). Meanwhile, because of budget cutbacks, universities are reducing the number of courses, which makes it harder for students to take the classes required for graduation. It is in this context that Bush’s Education Department wants to impose stringent national accreditation standards emphasizing graduation rates. Such a policy would create yet another hurdle for students from low-income families, who typically take longer to graduate, because they must juggle the demands of college with full-time jobs.

This attempt to pit hard-working parents against supposedly slothful academics exploits the honest concerns of working- and middle-class families about how they’re going to pay for their children’s college education. The cynicism behind these proposals is impressive, even by the standards of the current Administration. Although the nostrums are being urged in the name of institutional accountability–a “leave no child behind” act for higher education–by tightening the screws, Bush & Co. would almost certainly leave many more young people behind.

The demise of California’s once-vaunted system of public higher education illustrates the extent of the problem and the shortcomings of the GOP’s approach. When California’s Master Plan for Higher Education was unveiled in 1960, it became the gold standard for expanding access to a college education. That plan promises every high school graduate in the state a good and affordable education. The top 12.5 percent are guaranteed a place in the University of California (UC) system–Berkeley, UCLA and the like–and the top third are assured a spot in one of the California State universities (CSU), like Sacramento State. All high school graduates can enter a community college, and if they make the grade, they’re entitled to transfer to a UC or CSU school.

The Master Plan hasn’t officially been repealed, but its guarantee of universal higher education is effectively dead. Freshman tuition at the University of California has been kept comparatively low ($5,437, as compared with $6,149 at the University of Virginia and nearly $8,000 at the University of Michigan), but that’s quickly changing. With the state hemorrhaging money, public support for higher education has been trimmed; the state now contributes about 22 percent of the university’s operating budget, down from 54 percent in 1960. The cost of attending UC rose a jaw-dropping 30 percent this year, an increase second in magnitude only to the University of Arizona. Budget cuts also forced the university to postpone opening a new campus designed to draw students from the Central Valley, one of the poorest and most underserved regions in the state.

The picture is even grimmer at the community colleges. As enrollment increases have outstripped funding, many campuses have been forced to cut courses and put a cap on enrollment. To balance the books, community colleges raised their fees more than a third, from $11 to $18 a unit. That’s only about $150 a term, but community-college students are especially sensitive to tuition hikes. The higher the cost, the less they’re willing to risk a job now for uncertain future prospects. At a recent hearing in Sacramento, community-college officials estimated that enrollment was 90,000 below what they had been expecting.

The Master Plan’s promise of mobility to community-college graduates–do well and you can transfer to a public university–has also fallen victim to the state’s fiscal woes. In recent years the number of transfers has been steadily increasing, and to keep pace with demand, the state agreed to underwrite 4 percent annual growth for UC and CSU. This past summer, the legislature broke the agreement. The result is as dispiriting as it is predictable: The University of California has closed off enrollment for the winter semester, and 1,500 transfer applications from community-college graduates were returned unread. The CSU system, facing the same pressures, will turn away an estimated 20,000 students next spring. Come next fall, the situation will be even worse.

California’s self-inflicted political wounds have made perfect fodder for the late-night TV talk-show hosts. But when it comes to higher education, California’s dismal story typifies what’s happening across the country. Nationwide, college enrollments are steadily growing. But because state support and tuition don’t fully cover the cost of providing an education, each new student means more red ink for the university. That’s why many universities are turning away eligible students or ratcheting up their admission standards. While costs keep going up for everything from buying new technology to patching aging campuses, the share of higher-education operating expenses paid for by state tax dollars has been cut by more than a quarter since 1980. Some states now contribute less than 15 percent to university operating costs, and tuition has shot up mainly to cover the shortfall. State budget cuts have also forced many campuses to shrink curriculums. This fall the University of Illinois system canceled about 1,000 classes when the state lopped nearly $200 million from the budget, Virginia Tech shut down an education major and the University of Colorado dropped some academic programs in business and journalism.

For the better part of a century, says Mark Yudof, president of the University of Texas System, state legislatures and public universities have had a compact: “In return for financial support from taxpayers, universities agreed to keep tuition low and provide access for students from a broad range of economic backgrounds, train graduate and professional students, promote arts and culture, help solve problems in the community, and perform groundbreaking research.”

No longer–now it’s the market, not the commonweal, that calls the shots. The value of a college education has skyrocketed. Today’s male college graduates make $32,000 a year more than those with only a high school diploma, up from a $15,000 differential in 1975, after adjusting for inflation. This leaves public officials more inclined to perceive the BA not as a social investment but as a ticket to personal financial security. “Legislators and governors everywhere have become accustomed to letting higher education pay its own way,” says Robert Zemsky, who runs the Learning Alliance for Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, “reminding those who balk at ever-higher tuition that, from the perspective of a return on investment, nothing beats a college education.” Last spring Yudof confirmed the demise of the historic compact when he brokered a deal with Texas legislators; essentially, it blurs the line between public and private institutions by allowing each campus to determine its own tuition.

The market mindset also shapes how lawmakers are viewing financial aid–not as a response to students’ need but as an investment in the state’s productivity. Georgia’s well-publicized “HOPE” scholarships paved the way, and now a dozen states award hundreds of millions a year in merit scholarships to keep top-ranked high school graduates from going out of state. Almost all that money goes to well-off students who would have attended college anyway, instead of to low-income students who otherwise can’t afford a college education. Whether the policy yardstick is efficiency or equity, this is a misguided approach. David Breneman, an economist and dean of the University of Virginia’s education school, says he “can’t remember a time when the instincts of politicians have been so at odds with what most economists seem to think is sensible policy.”

The biggest losers in this market-driven higher-education world are students from low-income families. That’s no surprise, since equity has never been a concern of the market-minded. What’s startling, though, is the magnitude of the impact of family income on educational opportunity.

At elite universities, a study by the Century Foundation finds, almost three-quarters of the students come from the top quartile of socioeconomic status; fewer than 10 percent come from the bottom half. Similarly gross disparities are also evident in less selective schools. Fewer than half of college-qualified high school graduates from families with incomes below $25,000 enroll in four-year colleges, a 2003 Congressional committee report concludes, and nearly a quarter of them never pursue any higher education. By contrast, five out of every six students whose families earn more than $75,000 enroll in a four-year institution, and just 4 percent never go beyond high school. Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, neatly summed up the situation in a Los Angeles Times article: “Smart poor kids go to college at the same rate as stupid rich kids.”

Low-income students are also much slower, and less likely, to graduate than their well-off peers. Forty-one percent of undergraduates whose family income is in the top quartile get degrees within five years, reports Frank Newman in his forthcoming book The Future of Higher Education, but only one-seventh as many from the bottom quartile–6.1 percent–graduate in the same time period. While federal scholarship and loan programs are intended to close this gap, convoluted eligibility rules discourage students from applying. And with a ceiling of $4,050 for Pell Grants, this aid doesn’t begin to match the escalating cost of going to college. The latest College Board report concludes that financial aid hasn’t kept pace with tuition increases.

In short, public higher education is no longer an engine of opportunity. Quite the opposite–it generates inequality. The upcoming review of the Higher Education Act provides an apt occasion for a national conversation on college affordability and access, but that’s not what the GOP intends. In the mind of George Bush, the “bully pulpit” is a pulpit for bullying.

The outlines of a smarter and fairer federal policy are readily sketched. Government’s first priority should be to put a thumb on the equity side of the scale in order to narrow the access gap. This doesn’t have to cost billions of dollars. “It may be sufficient,” argue economists David Ellwood and Thomas Kane, “simply to target [financial] aid more effectively.”

Public universities can do their part by spending less on the status wars–the competition for recognition in the U.S. News & World Report rankings that leads schools to woo applicants with resort-quality, multimillion-dollar recreation centers and residence halls. States can help by phasing out their expensive merit-based scholarships. The principle is simple: Families that can afford to pay for their children’s education should foot the bill. But the spotlight must be on Washington. As David Breneman points out, “Only the federal government has the incentive and the resources to underwrite the access agenda.”

Students from low-income families are reluctant to borrow money, because they’re uncertain how they’ll fare in college, and they’re also most likely to drop out of school. That’s why it makes sense to offer them scholarships rather than loans–a policy just adopted by the University of North Carolina–at least during the first two years of their college education. Once they make it past that hurdle, they can finance the rest of their schooling with loans, ideally keyed to likely future earnings. And simplifying the Kafkaesque eligibility rules for federal aid would help matters as well.

Good policy entails more than jiggling with scholarship and loan formulas. Schools like the University of Texas at El Paso and New York City’s LaGuardia Community College have done remarkably well in recruiting and holding on to low-income students. These schools have adopted initiatives that monitor students’ progress, helping them to select majors, catching them before they fail and giving them the mentoring they need. For his part, Thomas Kane has gone beyond analyzing the data to becoming directly involved in the lives of students. A few years back he launched College Opportunity and Career Help (COACH), a Boston-area program that gives low-income high school students the kind of counseling that well-to-do families take for granted. Cloning such initiatives would be a wise social investment. These programs cost money, though, and to pay for them Washington would have to roll back the GOP tax cuts.

“Part of the agenda behind this discussion of accountability,” Representative Robert Andrews, a Democrat on John Boehner’s education subcommittee, points out, “is to distract attention away from the fact that [the Bush Administration] can’t afford significant increases in student aid because they’ve already given the money away in tax cuts.” Such pseudo-populism is nothing new–it’s the underpinning of compassionate conservatism–but the White House higher-education agenda goes beyond simple austerity. What’s being pitched as a lecture delivered on behalf of overburdened parents to irresponsible university administrators–get your budgets under control, get your students out the door–is a contrivance for undermining the chances of poor students, and making things harder for the middle class as well. It’s hard to imagine a higher-education policy less compassionate than that.