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How Higher Ed Became a Partisan Wedge Issue

As states debate the purpose of public universities, some say politics is playing an outsized role.

campus politics main photo
The University of Wisconsin
The Western Wisconsin College of Hair Design and Mortuary Science offers a host of majors to choose from, including diesel mechanics and private investigation. It’s also announced plans to open a new School of Taxidermy in the near future. The university’s official motto is “Meeting Wisconsin’s Workforce Needs Since 2007!” 

The school itself, however, doesn’t actually exist. It’s a fantasy campus with a parody Facebook page set up by Jon Loomis, a creative writing professor at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. He created the spoof in 2015 after Wisconsin lawmakers cut the state university system’s budget by $250 million and eroded tenure in ways that made it easier for administrators to fire faculty and eliminate programs. Gov. Scott Walker had also suggested that the lawmakers erase from the university’s charter such lofty language as the “search for truth” and change the mission statement to say the purpose of the school was to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” The legislature stopped short of doing that, but forcing universities to become more responsive to workforce demands was clearly part of the motivation behind the enacted changes.

Loomis’ mordant joke had been an attempt to poke a little fun at lawmakers’ efforts to turn the university system into what he describes as “a network of low-cost vocational centers.” But this spring, Loomis stopped laughing. “It was funny until it wasn’t funny,” he wrote recently for Inside Higher Ed, a trade publication, “until it became prophetic.”

In March, the University of Wisconsin’s Stevens Point campus announced a plan to eliminate 13 humanities and social science majors, including English, history, political science and foreign languages, while expanding programs such as marketing, graphic design and fire science. The proposed changes, which university officials say are needed to address budget shortfalls and declining enrollment, have been met with protest. But they echo changes announced last year at the university’s campus in Superior, which called for suspending nine majors and 15 minor programs. “Part of the whole idea of having these regional universities is to offer the full slate of educational opportunities,” says Nick Fleisher, a linguist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “All that stuff is being chipped away by these types of cuts.”

Wisconsin is at the forefront of a nationwide effort to reshape higher education. Governors and legislators have grown tired of hearing about students who are saddled with debt, yet can’t find a job appropriate to their level of educational attainment. At the same time, employers tell them they can’t find workers with the training or education needed to fill jobs in fields such as advanced manufacturing. The vast majority of jobs created since the recession require some education or training beyond high school, but not necessarily a four-year degree.

Higher education is still seen as the surest path to opportunity, but many policymakers are seeking to make colleges and universities offer more programs designed to meet labor force needs and to provide more information upfront about the career outcomes of recent graduates. “There is a movement in this country to see how we can better align our post-secondary education to the jobs that are available,” says Robert Behning, who chairs the Indiana House Education Committee. “Higher education has unfortunately been an ivory tower that has not been as responsive as it needs to be.”

Like other legislators, Behning is looking for ideas that will ensure that students are prepared for jobs that actually exist. Everywhere, the emphasis is on workforce development, whether it’s adult education, apprenticeships or academic credit for veterans. Numerous states are seeking to follow Tennessee in providing scholarships to attend community colleges, which offer more practical or technical training than four-year institutions. 


Students attend a general psychology class at the University of Missouri last fall. The state used to provide 60 percent of higher ed funding, but today state support is barely above the constitutionally required minimum of 25 percent. (AP)

The differing sets of responsibilities that have traditionally separated the roles played by high schools, community colleges and university systems are starting to blur as states prod institutions at each level to do different things to prepare students for jobs. “We need to get students into the employment pipeline more quickly,” says Dave Murphy, a Wisconsin state representative. “We’re working hard to cut down time to degrees, so they can get to work.”

It’s not hard to find faculty members at four-year schools who defend the idea that the role of the university is not just to train welders and widget makers, but prepare students to think and reason for themselves. For the most part, the university community is willing, at least publicly, to cede the ground of learning for learning’s sake. Not many are highlighting the importance of a broader understanding of Athenian democracy or Renaissance art history. Instead, their most potent arguments lie within the realm of creating career-ready graduates. Louisiana State University President F. King Alexander, for example, toured the state in February, touting figures that showed the economic value the university contributes to each parish.

The emphasis on financial returns doesn’t mean universities are ready to eliminate humanities majors in favor of producing accountants, nurses and software developers. From English and history majors come future teachers, while a degree in philosophy might provide the right background for law school. University officials stress the importance of learning so-called soft skills, such as communications and critical thinking. Those types of robot-proof abilities may not always lead to specific jobs, but humanities majors may be well-prepared for big careers, even in business.

Job-oriented students will need to be equipped not just for the opportunities immediately available when they graduate, but the ones they’ll take on 10 or 20 years down the road. Earning a certificate that amounts to a job training program for a factory nearby may pay off in the short term, but individuals may change jobs 15 times over the course of their careers, notes Rolf Wegenke, president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “What about when they go for that fifth or sixth job?” he asks. “How are they prepared to adapt?”

People in higher ed are armed with statistics spelling out the monetary benefits of completing four-year degrees. But the political playing field is shifting dramatically. Over the past couple of years, pollsters at both the Pew Research Center and Gallup have noted a sharp spike in skepticism about the value of universities, particularly among Republicans. Democrats have their issues with higher ed, especially when it comes to the question of cost, but many Republicans now see universities as part of the political opposition, little more than indoctrination camps for radical leftists. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hasn’t talked much about higher education, but in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year, she said that she believes faculty and administrators at colleges and universities are trying to indoctrinate kids, telling them “what to do, what to say and, more ominously, what to think.” 

“If you go back and look at news sources that are traditionally considered more conservative, the only stories that have run about higher ed are about kicking mainly conservative speakers off campus,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup. 

A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents -- 58 percent -- view colleges and universities, on the whole, as bad for the country, according to a Pew survey released last summer. Every time a campus hosts a forum on “toxic masculinity” or offers a course on “the problem with whiteness,” some legislator is bound to put out a press release demanding that its funding be cut in half. Universities are trying to communicate the value of all that they’re doing, says Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, but it’s becoming an uphill battle. He says that the message that universities have a positive impact on their communities “is not being well-received, by lawmakers in particular.”
 Campuses have become a front in the culture wars just at the moment when lawmakers are wondering not only about how much aid to provide to their state universities, but also whether the whole system needs to be reset. For the most part, colleges and universities have fended off the most drastic changes, but at the very least they are facing a serious political and public relations problem. 

The combination of anger over student debt and the willingness of the media to highlight college graduates who are working as baristas at coffee shops or living at home (or both), as well as the desire among some conservative politicians to turn higher ed into a wedge issue, has caused public support for higher education to plummet. “It’s a pretty negative narrative,” admits Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a higher ed advocacy group. “Higher education was pretty oblivious to the emergence of that picture.”

The debate over whether the main purpose of higher education is personal enrichment or pragmatic training is as old as the country itself. Some of the founders believed that learning languages such as Latin and Greek was useless to farmers, mechanics and merchants. Benjamin Rush, who signed the Declaration of Independence and wrote the charter for Dickinson College, hated the ancient languages, contending they were not suited to American education. Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, disagreed, as did John Adams. “Classics, in spite of our friend Rush, I must think indispensable,” Adams wrote to Jefferson after Rush’s death.

The Morrill Act of 1862 gave states land to establish schools of agriculture and mechanic arts -- institutions that were meant to serve as training academies, of a sort. Purdue University, for one, never offered a classics major until 1998. Over time, however, those institutions grew to become comprehensive, offering liberal arts degrees as well. As Behning, the Indiana legislator, sees it, “the pendulum swang too far to the point where there was not enough practical knowledge.” 


Many lawmakers want to ensure that universities hand out more degrees in fields like advanced manufacturing, and fewer in majors like Russian literature. (AP)

He is not alone in that belief. Last September, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin argued that his state’s colleges and universities needed to concentrate more on training kids to take jobs “that matter.” Bevin said it was fine if students wanted to study interpretive dance, but that wouldn’t lead to many jobs, echoing comments he’d made earlier about intending to provide more support to electrical engineering students than French literature majors. “Find entire parts of your campus ... that don’t need to be there,” he told officials at a conference on post-secondary education. “You’re maintaining something that’s not an asset of any value, that’s not helping to produce that 21st-century educated workforce.”

When Bevin released his budget this year, he proposed cutting higher ed spending by 6.25 percent, or $72 million a year. University administrators were pleased. They had feared the cuts would be much worse. Similarly, Nebraska university officials breathed a sigh of relief after the legislature approved cuts that didn’t go as deep as the 4 percent reduction sought by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

It was the same story with Congress. Last year’s federal tax package imposed a tax on university endowment income, although the final version affected only about a sixth of the schools that would have been hit under the House version. The Senate also refused to sign off on the House plan to tax graduate tuition waivers as income and end student loan interest deductions. In the end, the provisions in the House-passed bill that would have eliminated roughly $70 billion in tax benefits for students and families were dropped by the Senate. “The bill,” says Hartle of the American Council on Education, “went from being absolutely terrible for higher education, in the first version introduced in the House, to being, by the time the president signed it, merely bad.”

Still, merely bad is not good. State support for colleges and universities is down by $9 billion, when adjusted for inflation, from pre-recession levels. It’s traditional for universities to suffer cuts during a recession since they have a separate revenue source in the form of tuition. Now that tuition has increased-- and student debt loads, partially as a result, have shot up 153 percent over the past decade -- lawmakers remain unhappy with higher ed and are seeking further cuts and changes. 

That’s the case in Missouri, which used to provide 60 percent of public higher ed funding. Today, with state support barely above the constitutionally required minimum of 25 percent, more cuts are on the table. The state’s flagship university has suffered a precipitous drop in enrollment, following protests in 2015 that led to the departure of the system’s president and the campus chancellor. The university has been making necessary changes to degree programs being offered and the size of the faculty, says Caleb Rowden, whose state Senate district includes the main campus. “The days of four-year institutions trying to be good at everything are gone,” he says.

The sense of disruption is particularly acute in Wisconsin, which for more than a century held to a homegrown concept called the “Wisconsin Idea.” University leaders during the Progressive Era at the turn of the last century believed that the whole of the state should be touched by the “beneficent influence of the university.” That meant the work of the university would be widely shared, whether it was the development of new agricultural techniques or fresh Greek translations. “The Wisconsin Idea was that the university and the people of the state, regardless of whether they’re students, have a connection,” says Thomas Loftus, a former state House speaker. “The second part of the idea is that students who graduate are expected to go out into the world, and no matter what they do, make it a better place.”

The Wisconsin Idea has been badly undermined by the budget cuts and structural changes occurring within the higher ed system, claim Democratic politicians. For their part, university officials in Wisconsin contend that their campuses are ramping up programs demanded by the marketplace, such as artificial intelligence centers or training for pharmacists. 

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, however, no matter how many career-centric programs are offered, there are always going to be kids who prefer to sign up for English or art. And no matter how much lawmakers may be enraptured by practical apprenticeships, plenty of kids still want a liberal arts education -- often prodded by parents inculcated with the belief that only a four-year degree means your kid has safely made it. “What we’re starting to realize,” Behning says, “is that not all students need a four-year degree.”

Lawmakers are trying to provide a countervailing force, passing dozens of laws in recent years to stem the drop in vocational education at the high school level and encourage students and parents to see the value in programs that can offer them debt-free college credits. Not everyone sees this as a positive trend. States are emphasizing technical degrees at a time when a greater share of the student population is made up of minorities. “A lot of people feel those folks are not as deserving,” says Joe Garcia, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, “and we shouldn’t be spending our taxpayer dollars to educate them.”

Demographic divides are deepening around higher education. College education itself has become a partisan indicator. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump carried noncollege educated whites by better than a 2-to-1 margin, but only carried whites with college degrees by 3 percent. “If you look at who is most negative about higher ed, it’s white men with no college education who are 18 to 49 years old and in the Midwest,” says Busteed, the Gallup pollster. “When we see an issue that’s split by political party, any kind of issue, it usually never recovers.”

Harvard, Yale and Stanford will always have more applicants than they can accept, regardless of their shocking sticker prices. The same is probably true of the more prestigious flagship public universities. Perhaps regional universities will find a renewed lease on life by concentrating on preparing students for jobs that are readily available. 

It’s easy to understand the desire to make them do so. But it’s possible that their changing role will mean there are fewer spaces open for people who would prefer to pursue a full four-year degree. What worries Wisconsin state Rep. Dianne Hesselbein is that “we’re making it harder for people to get the degrees they want to get.” The argument that a four-year university education is the province of elites, in other words, can become self-fulfilling.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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