How Republicans Learned to Love Colleges

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U.S. President Barack Obama waves to the crowd after speaking during a visit to Georgia Tech in Atlanta March 10, 2015. Obama spoke about measures to help make college more affordable.
Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/Corbis

Of all the ideas “reform conservatives” have come up with, the most promising is overhauling higher education. Haphazard and increasingly expensive federal subsidies for college education offer one of the few areas where the Republican party’s political need to address the economic insecurities of the working class can be accomplished without betraying the conservative movement’s anti-government impulses.

In some ways, college subsidies work like fee-for-service medicine, which pays doctors and hospitals to provide more medical care but not necessarily better health. College tuition subsidies encourage colleges to enroll students, but do not give them an incentive to furnish these students with useful skills. There’s no cost to the providers for a school that fails to graduate a huge proportion of its student body, or leaves them laden with debt — the feds pay the bill, regardless.

Reform conservatives propose to stop simply shovelling more tuition subsidies out the door and instead try to create a more functional market, where the customers (prospective students) know what they’re getting, and the suppliers (colleges) have an incentive to provide quality. As conservative reform advocates Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin have put it, “these ideas are a particularly natural fit for Republican reformers interested in enhancing the market orientation of the higher education sector and offering a clear contrast to Democrats more inclined to simply spend more on the problem, increase the federal role and protect powerful incumbents in higher education who are a significant Democratic constituency.

As a political strategy, though, this laudable policy initiative runs into two problems. The first is that this is already the Obama administration’s higher-education agenda. To be sure, Obama’s higher-education reforms are embryonic, and they are also not the only conceivable way to fulfill the ambition of imposing accountability onto tuition subsidies, but they absolutely follow the same impulse. The administration is creating ways to help prospective students compare the effectiveness of different colleges, and metrics to impose accountability on them.

The second problem is that Congressional Republicans actively oppose this agenda. Alec MacGillis has an excellent report today on the emerging alliance on Capitol Hill between the higher-education lobby and the majority party in Congress. The higher-education lobby wants to block the federal ratings system and increasingly opposes any steps the administration would take to ensure that tuition subsidies fulfill their intended purpose:

Most of the traditional higher education lobbying groups signed onto a recent letter to Congress stating their support for Republican legislation that would block the new restrictions on for-profit colleges, as well as undo or weaken other accountability rules for colleges. And a new report on higher education regulation commissioned by the Senate and overseen by the American Council on Education, the leading lobby group for traditional schools, slammed the rules on for-profit colleges as part of a broader critique of the administration’s approach.

It is counterintuitive, as MacGillis notes, to think of colleges (which are famously left-wing) as allies of the Republican right. But the health-care fight has showed that, once a government role has become entrenched, it is easy for incumbent industries to frame no-strings-attached funding as a “conservative” position. That is the strange ideological alchemy that turned the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which empowers experts to limit wasteful Medicare spending, into “rationing” and end-of-life counseling into “death panels.” The new Republican idea is to keep the government’s hands off your tuition subsidies.