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.