The right-wing war on college

By: - October 25, 2011 12:35 pm

It is no secret that the folks on the anti-government right want to destroy traditional public schools any way they can, budget cuts, vouchers, tax credits, unregulated charter schools.

House Majority Leader Paul Stam introduced a voucher scheme this legislative session and one version of a charter school bill popular with the Right would have created a new and separate, largely unregulated and unaccountable school system.

But it increasingly appears that the Right is waging war on higher education too, judging by the statements of leading conservative politicians and the never ending screeds banging around in the right-wing echo chamber.

Congressman Ron Paul, the favorite presidential candidate of the anti-government zealots, recently came out in favor of abolishing the federal student loan program and lamented “this willingness of helping every student get a college education.”

Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republicans budget guru in Congress, wants to restrict eligibility and slash funding for Pell Grants and also routinely blasts the federal student loan program.

That might lead you to believe it’s not college per se that right-wingers don’t like, just attempts to make higher education more accessible to people who can’t afford it on their own.

That would fit with the rest of their social Darwinistic crusade against the poor, but it seems to go deeper than that.

Republican legislative leaders made their biggest budget cuts to the University of North Carolina system in their budget cutting frenzy this session, slashing almost $700 million out of the system over the next two years.

The cuts came from everywhere, faculty, staff, student aid, facilities, etc. UNC campuses have larger classes this year and fewer sections of many courses needed for graduation. Thousands of university jobs have been eliminated.

Tuition is also increasing, much to the delight of the right-wing think tanks who continue to refer to the state’s history of low tuition as a college subsidy. They don’t just want to raise tuition slightly, they want to charge North Carolina students what it costs the state to educate them, which would far more than double tuition at most UNC campuses.  Anything lower, those on the Right argue, is a state subsidy of college that should be abolished.

And all this while their political leaders are demanding fewer grants and no more federal loans.

Low tuition at UNC schools is not a subsidy. The university system is a state institution that provides an essential service to the citizens of the state that’s mentioned in the state constitution. But even if you accept the Right’s semantic misstatement, so what?  The state ought to be “subsidizing” college.

It’s in all of our best interests to have a well-educated community, though the folks on the Right dispute that notion too and are now on a rampage that too many people are going to college in the first place.

That will come as a surprise to economists who continue to tell us about the increasing intellectual demands of the global economy. But the “college is overrated” talking point is catching on, and not just at the branch of the Pope Empire in North Carolina dedicated to dismantling the university system.

The Right has long screeched that universities are “left-wing indoctrination centers.” The anti-government crowd sees public universities and federal student loans, like almost every public institution program, as wasting taxpayer dollars, especially when it comes to helping poor kids get a degree.

And then there’s the anti-intellectual bias so central to the Right’s agenda of fear and division. Average Americans are warned not to trust the college-educated “elites” who rely on facts and science to support their views.

That’s how we end up with a candidate with a 9-9-9 plan leading the Republican presidential primary field.

Maybe they think it is good politics to slash college funding and demean the value of a university education. But it’s horrible public policy that threatens the future of millions of families.

This war on college is the last thing we need.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066