the national interest

The Obama College-Socialism Backlash Is Here

He’s up to no good, conservatives. Photo: Pete Souza/The White House

After President Obama announced his higher-education-reform plan last week, an eerie silence followed from the right. What would Republicans make of this proposal? Here was a plan that involved no new government spending — indeed, it was designed to reduce the amount of money the government had to spend by allocating it more efficiently. Plus, it threatened snooty universities, who rank high in the demonology of the right.

On the other hand, the plan was being proposed by Barack Obama, who ranks even higher in the demonology of the right. (No. 1, to be exact.)

Cognitive dissonance! What would they say?

But now the angry conservative backlash has finally arrived, courtesy of Daniel Henninger, author of The Wall Street Journal opinion page’s aptly named “Wonder Land” column, and it is everything I had hoped an angry right-wing backlash could be. Henninger calls Obama’s proposal “Obamacare for education,” which is true, in the sense that it’s an idea originally invented by Republicans but subsequently abandoned and then (this is the stage we’re embarking on now) transformed into a partisan hate object.

Obama’s plan involves developing some metric to gauge how colleges perform, and — if that gauge wins widespread support — tying it to federal tuition aide, so that Washington has some way of ensuring it isn’t throwing away money on colleges that don’t graduate anybody. Now, the plan hasn’t come close to the implementation stage, so we have no idea how well it will work. But Henninger’s column is a pastiche of dystopian fantasies. He credulously cites the claims of a higher-education lobbyist as if this were a dispassionate source of wisdom. Most entertaining is this Henninger freak-out:

To better comprehend the origins of all this, one need only visit the White House website and read the proposal’s first sentence. Actually it’s the first half of the first sentence, which makes it clear that something other than student debt loads and repayment schedules is in play here: “Earning a postsecondary degree or credential is no longer just a pathway to opportunity for a talented few.” A talented few?

When, since the end of World War II, has U.S. higher education been for the “talented few”? Like everything else the past four years, the economics of higher education is about to be refracted through the same lens of social antagonism Mr. Obama uses to think about pretty much everything.

Let’s start with the factual question. When since the end of World War II has higher education been only for the few, Henninger wants to know? How about after World War II? Here, a chart:


It wasn’t until 1970 that even one out of ten adults over the age of 25 had a college degree. That’s “a talented few.”

But what’s more amusing than Henninger’s lack of factual understanding is the confusion and paranoia he brings to the subject. Obama’s agenda of making college education more available is an agenda of “social antagonism”? I realize that the Journal editorial page regards any advocacy of the economic interests of the non-rich as socialism. But isn’t making it easier for the Poors to go to college — particularly if this goal is not attached to any commitment of public funds — the sort of bland country-club aspiration that even right-wingers like to endorse? Is it your fear that there’s a fixed amount of college education and Obama’s going to take it away from your children and give it to ghetto kids?

The Obama College-Socialism Backlash Is Here