Education

Screw U: The GOP’s War on College Students

The Republican platform is out to destroy higher education, and take down students in the process.

As colleges across the country gear up for another academic year, it is not unusual for faculty and parents to hear the classic complaints about lazy, entitled, needy college students. There are the inevitable “it’s on the syllabus” memes alongside the snarky #firstdayofclasses tweets. These little barbs seem innocuous. They are just jokes after all, right? But as we have recently seen with Donald Trump’s rude comments to Megyn Kelly, these "jokes" matter. It’s always a bad move to mock students, especially if it’s your career to teach them. But this year jokes aren't just a bad idea; they're adding fuel to a fire.

As nutty as the current slate of GOP nominees may seem, it would be a mistake to ignore the very real threat of their higher education policy. Across the board, in a variety of ways, the GOP lineup is on the hunt for higher education as we know it. While we might all agree that reform is due, make no mistake that the GOP platform is out to destroy our colleges and universities and take down the students they serve in the process. Let’s look at the three main models.

Profit U: The Trump Model

Under Trump, higher education would no longer even remotely resemble a common good for the public; it would simply be a profit-driven model. Of course, many faculty and administrators are already stuck in the business of generating revenue as public funding for higher education has declined. The Trump model goes a step further, as evidenced by his already existing for-profit venture.

It won’t come as a surprise to learn that Trump’s megalomania led to the founding of Trump University in 2005. The for-profit education company was meant to teach students to be like The Donald. The Washington Post reports that he had to change the name in 2010 when the New York Board of Education accused him of “misleading the public by running an unauthorized school.” After that, the lawsuits and complaints kept filing in. In 2013, New York Attorney Eric Schneiderman announced he was suing Trump for fraud:

"More than 5,000 people across the country who paid Donald Trump $40 million to teach them his hard sell tactics got a hard lesson in bait-and-switch…Mr. Trump used his celebrity status and personally appeared in commercials making false promises to convince people to spend tens of thousands of dollars they couldn't afford for lessons they never got."

As Mother Jones points out in its coverage of the complaints over Trump U, the instructors didn’t know the material, Trump was a no-show and the curriculum was a joke. But more importantly, it rigged its course ratings, misled students into thinking they were getting real degrees and told students to lie to credit card companies to increase their spending limits so they could get further into debt. Students left Trump U with no knowledge and more debt than they could handle. 

The Trump model is all about making more money at the student’s expense.

Privilege U: The Bush Model

While Jeb Bush may seem like the least loony of the lineup, his higher education policy may be one of the most insidious. Even though he likes to tout that while governor of Florida he made it easier for first-time students to attend college, the facts suggest otherwise. As reported in the Atlantic, in 1999 he was the first governor in the nation’s history to end the use of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions at public universities. From 2000-'13, black enrollment in colleges in the state fell by almost 11 percent while enrollment nationally rose by over 3 percent. Black student enrollment dropped at the state’s flagship schools, declining by more than 50 percent at the University of Florida.

While Bush was gutting an admissions model that took diversity into account, he was opening the doors to top students. His “One Florida” plan ensured that the top 20 percent of high school graduates would be admitted to institutions of higher learning. This left the elite public schools for the elite and ensured that a segment of the population would have less access to the economic benefits of higher education at a top-ranked school.

Bush’s meritocracy also extends to the issue of student debt. According to him, the only reason student debt is a problem is because students don’t work hard enough: They take too long to graduate and they follow a “French work week.” Clearly he is unaware of the fact that many millennial students often are working while in school. The average student works over 20 hours a week. CBS reported in 2013 that, “71 percent of the nation's 19.7 million college undergraduates were working in 2011. Of that number, one in five undergrads were working at least 35 hours a week year-round.”

The Bush model is all about protecting privilege and ignoring the reality of most millennial students, who are increasingly people of color and working through school.

Ruin U: The Walker Model

Scott Walker is the candidate who has had the most news coverage with his higher education policy. This is because he isn’t just making the flagship institution in his state whiter, he is destroying it. Some speculate that Walker’s attacks on higher education stem from the fact that he never got a college degree, having dropped out of Marquette University in his fourth year. Others wonder if he just hates liberal professors. The problem with that explanation is that, even though college faculty do tend to lean to the left, evidence shows that students form their political leanings well before arriving on campus

Walker doesn’t seem to care. Instead he — more than any other candidate — has aimed to wreck one of the very best public institutions of higher learning in our nation. Earlier this year, he proposed a $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin budget; that number was later reduced to $250 million. The budget cut is eerily close to the amount of funds he sought to build a new basketball arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, who are part owned by one of Walker’s top campaign contributors.

Then he proposed the elimination of tenure, a move that would ensure the university would be unable to attract and retain the best faculty. The budget committee also voted to make changes to UW’s shared governance system, “taking power away from faculty, students and staff to have a voice in campus decisions and giving more authority to campus chancellors and the UW System Board of Regents.”

The Walker model defunds the university, demoralizes the faculty and offers students a chance to have a pro basketball arena in their state instead. Too bad they won’t be able to afford the tickets. 

Strong Schools, Strong Nation                                                        

Each of these models takes a problem and makes it worse. Regardless of one’s political leaning, a strong university system is an essential feature of a strong nation. We have increasing evidence of the decline of our education system with reports that our schools are expensive, unequal and bad at teaching math

On top of that, the student debt crisis is critical. The latest reports suggest that the outstanding debt is now $1.2 trillion. It gets worse, though, since the millennials carrying the debt make up about 40 percent of the nation’s unemployed. So student debt is not being paid back. The system is creating an entire generation of young people who are in debt and don’t have the job opportunities they need to get out of it.

While these are just three models, the policy across the board is of a piece. So why is it that not one GOP candidate is actually working to strengthen higher education? The answer seems simple, and it’s all about likely voters. When GOP candidates go after higher education, they rile up their base, people who already hate millennial students and the professors who teach them.

As the Pew Research Center reports, those with college educations, women and people of color lean left in voting. When we think generationally, we see that millennials lean left as well. Millennials are better educated than any of the three previous generations, and they are more likely to be from a racial or ethnic minority than older generations.

Taken together, we can see why the GOP doesn’t care about college students. The party has a millennial problem, but it really has a college-educated millennial problem. That demographic is among the least likely to vote Republican.

While we might take some solace in the energy that is stirring up behind Bernie Sanders’ free college campaign, it is important to recognize the frightening reality of the GOP agenda, one that offers deep and destructive changes to higher education in this country. Between Trump’s Profit U, Bush’s Privilege U and Walker’s Ruin U, we get Screw U— a university system that no longer serves a public good or aims to educate the next generation. The plan is to stick it to the young and mock them while doing it.

So next time you hear a snarky remark about college students, remember that if GOP policy takes over, Republicans will be the only ones laughing.

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Sophia A. McClennen is professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics. Follow her on Twitter at @mcclennen65.