College, once a sure ticket to the middle class, is causing a lot of anxiety these days. People are concerned about its cost, about low graduation rates and about the poor employment prospects of some graduates.
Hillary Clinton complained about the burden of student debt in a speech in New York last month. Sen. Marco Rubio devoted much of a speech on economic opportunity this week to his own ideas for reforming higher education. We’re beginning to see the outlines of two rival approaches to addressing these problems. Democratic solutions center on increased federal spending and regulation, and Republican ones on increased competition. As a result, the next election could matter more than most for the future of higher education.
In particular, progressives want to use increased federal funding as leverage to get schools to act the way federal policymakers want them to. Thus President Barack Obama’s proposal to spend $60 billion to eliminate tuition at community colleges that “adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.” A related idea is to have the government publish ratings for colleges, the better to make them responsive to the desires of Washington. The progressive approach exposes newer players, such as for-profit schools, to special scrutiny.
Conservatives, on the other hand, increasingly favor policies that provide new options for students: new educational institutions, new financing methods and new information for evaluating them. Rubio wants to liberalize accreditation rules to break up what he calls the higher-education “cartel.” He wants to make it easier for private institutions to extend student loans in return for a share of students’ future income. He thinks vocational education should get a greater share of federal funds. He thinks prospective students should have access to data about how well graduates of specific college programs fare at getting jobs. And he wants higher-education institutions, whether new or old, for-profit or not, to be accountable to customers rather than to the government.
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There’s some overlap between the two camps. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a liberal Democrat, has teamed up with Rubio to sponsor legislation that advances college accountability. Obama has sometimes talked about changing the accreditation rules. Both Rubio and Obama want to let people with lower incomes make lower student-loan repayments. In its coverage of Rubio’s speech, the New York Times said that his proposals “sounded strikingly similar to policies that President Obama has called for during his time in office,” and quoted a Democratic spokeswoman denying Rubio had any new ideas.
It’s easy to exaggerate how much common ground there is, though. The Times cites old bits of Obama’s rhetoric on which he hasn’t followed up. Sen. Mike Lee has a bill to change the accreditation rules, for example. Rubio has praised it while Obama has been silent about it. As his term comes to an end, the president seems more comfortable with policies that fit the liberal paradigm. So does Clinton.
But I said that we were “beginning” to see a left-right split on higher education. Republicans haven’t fully embraced Rubio’s agenda of conservative reforms. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is working on a rewrite of the Higher Education Act, has released white papers that are consistent with that agenda. But more recently he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal making the case that higher education works pretty well as it is.
Over time, Republicans will probably reach the conclusion that they’re better off addressing popular anxieties about higher education than trying to talk people out of having them. Once that happens, the debate will be on. Maybe even in time for November 2016.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.