This month has seen interesting signs of a potential partisan split on higher education. That would be a major shift in American party politics, as both Democrats and Republicans have generally joined hands since 2008 in pressuring campuses to cut costs and reform academically. We could be on the cusp of a strong party divide.
Here’s why. A suite of Republican governors have suddenly attacked public funding for colleges and universities, most recently with Rauner of Illinois. Their reasons vary, but they agree that tertiary education can bear massive financial cuts.
Then from the far opposite side of the political spectrum came an antithetical call. One of my state’s senators, avowed socialist (nominally independent, caucuses with Democrats) Bernie Sanders proposed that federal and state governments completely fund tuition and fees for every student in their first and second years while attending public institutions.
“We need a revolution in the way higher education is funded,” Sanders said at Johnson State College, a public school in Vermont, according to his office.
Sanders, who is mulling a 2016 White House run, said rising college costs are preventing young people from going to college and are leaving many students in debt. “This is absurd. This is absolutely counter-productive to our efforts to create a strong economy,” he said, adding that the United States is lagging behind other countries where college is free.
Sanders is an outlier in today’s Democratic party, obviously hard to its left. He’s not really a Democrat at all.
So why mention these disparate yet related public pronouncements? Because they bracket the Democratic party. The Democrats now have the perfect opportunity to take a partisan and probably popular stance. They could call for not cuts, but increases in funding higher education. The Dems could win over a generation of voters, grateful college students, and the grateful parents of many traditional-age students – possibly for life.
This could be a risky move. It would entail backtracking from at least a decade of bipartisan education reform. At the state level it would mean local Democrats reversing their tendency to cut public university funding. At a broader level it would also return the Democrats to their pre-1990s, more liberal ways of supporting and expanding social programs, at least in this one instance.
Alternatively, the Democrats could remain silent and negotiate quietly for practical acceptance of smaller cuts. That might maintain their allies in the 1%, especially in terms of campaign funding. It would let them avoid charges of being too leftist, liberal, or socialist.
Thanks to these recent developments from the political right and left, the ball is in the Democratic party’s court. How do you think they’ll play it?