More than ever, higher education has become critical to snagging a stable job, moving up the income ladder and succeeding in the global economy.
Yet more than ever, higher education has also become a political football and object of derision.
Here in Arizona, Republican politicians clearly view beating up on colleges as a way to prove their conservative bona fides. Attorney General Mark Brnovich recently sued the board of regents of Arizona's public universities, which under state law is technically his client. Brnovich complains that tuition is too high to meet the state's constitutional requirement that colleges be "as nearly free as possible."
The suit unfortunately leaves out the fact that Arizona has cut state funding per student by 41 percent since 2008, second only to Louisiana in higher-ed disinvestment. Which suggests that if anyone is violating the constitution, it's state lawmakers, not schools.
"It's a political distraction motivated by something other than an actual interest in tuition-paying students," Arizona State University President Michael Crow told me. "It's motivated by the political aspirations of the person that filed the suit."
Arizona colleges are hardly the only institutions in the culture-war crosshairs.
At a dinner in New York last month with about a dozen college presidents, other officials described similar showdowns with peacocking, publicity-stunting politicians.
A group of Louisiana legislators recently threatened to further slash public higher-ed appropriations — already down 43 percent per student since 2008 — if any student football players took a knee during the national anthem, according to Louisiana State University President F. King Alexander. (The threat was withdrawn after Alexander reminded lawmakers that LSU players traditionally remain in the locker room during the anthem.)
In Iowa, a state senator introduced a bill requiring ideological litmus tests for faculty hiring. In Nebraska, state senators waged a media campaign against the state's flagship university after an ugly confrontation between a conservative undergrad and a liberal grad student went viral.
When I asked whether they believed provisions of the Trump tax bill targeting colleges were punitive, nearly every president at the dinner answered yes.
Ambitious Republican politicians are not wrong to see college-bashing as politically useful. Several recent surveys find huge partisan divides in views of higher education.
A June Pew Research Center survey found that a majority of Republicans believe colleges and universities have a "negative effect on the way things are going in the country." Democrats overwhelmingly said the opposite.
In an August Gallup survey, two-thirds of Republicans likewise said they have just some or very little confidence in colleges. The chief complaints: Schools are too liberal, they don't allow students to think for themselves and students are learning the wrong things.
Or as Donald Trump Jr. put it in a campus speech last fall: "We'll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange we'll train your children to hate our country."
Most troubling — at least from an economic perspective — Americans are losing faith in the payoff of a college degree.
In an August Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, most Republicans, rural residents and people who consider themselves poor or working class said college isn't worth the cost. This is even though higher education averages a much bigger return than any other major investments; the occupations requiring at least some postsecondary education are projected to have the fastest job growth and highest earnings in the coming decade; and for those born at the bottom of the income distribution, a college diploma is key to achieving upward social mobility.
So how did college become a scapegoat for the nation's ills?
To hear Crow tell it, the primary problem is the long-brewing perception that college is inaccessible, catering only to the self-dealing elite. As a result, he says, ASU has worked hard to lower costs and make its student body more representative of the state's socioeconomic and ethnic makeup. In fact, contrary to Brnovich's lawsuit, net tuition (i.e., not the sticker price, but what students actually pay after grants and other financial aid) for in-state students is lower today than it was 30 years ago, Crow says. That's thanks to new funding sources (donations, grants, international students) and changes in how the school is organized.
What about that Republican perception that colleges are socialist brainwashing factories? I ask.
He smiles. Then he acknowledges that even his prized university has not always had "intellectual balance," and notes that it has recently developed conservative-leaning programs.
Such initiatives have been partly funded by the otherwise-stingy state legislature, and partly by private donors, such as the Charles Koch Foundation.
Which may provide a worrisome preview into where public higher ed is heading elsewhere, too: replacing dwindling public dollars with private ones, especially those that will appease suspicious conservatives.
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