The nation’s largest piece of higher education legislation is up for renewal, but Republican leaders are preparing to push it through with practically no significant reforms in order to get Democrat votes. That includes not reducing the federal inflation of the student debt bubble nor demanding that publicly funded universities secure students’ constitutional free speech rights. Both are major national concerns.
Seventy-three percent of Americans, across political party affiliation, support free speech assurances on college campuses. Yet more than 90 percent of colleges “substantially restrict freedom of speech and association,” according to the National Association of Scholars (NAS).
The freedoms to speak and to associate with whomever one pleases are constitutionally guaranteed natural rights. Members of Congress take oaths to support and defend the Constitution in office. If they can’t or won’t do that, they should resign. First Amendment protections shouldn’t even be a question in discussions to reform the Higher Education Act (HEA), and they aren’t among the vast majority of Americans, but apparently they are on both sides of the aisle in Washington.
Several Senate offices, including his own, have made it clear that Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, is willing to trade away students’ constitutional rights in exchange for getting Democrats to pass any HEA bill in the House. That’s wrong, both morally and politically. If Alexander, a long-time politician and former U.S. education secretary who is retiring in 2020, wants to leave a legacy, it shouldn’t be a legacy of squandered reform opportunities.
Even if all Alexander cares about is politics instead of principles, the smart thing to do would be to force Democrats to vote down a HEA revamp over its free speech assurances. This would make Democrats’ creepily totalitarian support of censorship obvious to the American public, and set up a battering ram to use against them in the 2020 election cycle.
Caving on this issue would not only reinforce among Republican voters that the officeholders they vote for cannot be trusted to fulfill their promises once in office — see, e.g., the lack of an Obamacare repeal or an end of taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood — it would also hide Democrats’ anti-constitutional extremism from voters, who deserve to be informed.
As NAS points out, the current HEA “sets forth the ‘sense of Congress’ that ‘an institution of higher education should facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas’ and that ‘students should not be intimidated, harassed, discouraged from speaking out, or discriminated against.’ It also explicitly protects religious liberty and association—for both students and for religious institutions. But this statutory language has had little effect on what colleges and universities actually do. That’s because the HEA provided no means to enforce the ‘sense of Congress.'”
Higher education is in a crisis that is largely of the government’s making. American taxpayers have increasingly subsidized higher ed even as it has gotten massively bloated, massively politicized, and massively ineffective at helping young people get ahead in life. Lawmakers have a duty to dismantle these systemic problems they and their colleagues have helped construct.
Democrats have no motivation to make substantive changes because the U.S. education system is biased in their favor. They don’t want free speech because it threatens their ideological hegemony over U.S. education institutions. They don’t want to tie accountability to or divest the government of taxpayer-backed student loans because they want the system to financially collapse so they can fully nationalize academia. The current education system is culturally, financially, and governmentally slanted left. So they have zero incentive to play ball.
The only way to bring Democrats to the table to truly reform America’s massive system of federal subsidies to academia is to make them feel political pressure about their support for and contributions to this mess. Republicans could also win back the House in 2020 by presenting a clear, positive platform to voters centered on individual choice and personal responsibility, and their HEA overhaul won’t need to compromise with the political faction that created this problem and has zero good ideas for how to fix it.
College professors and administrators are Democrats and harder-left than Democrats by factors as crazy as 10:1. Democrats unequivocally own higher education. And they’ve turned it into a wasteland.
Republicans should feel no compunction to hide this state of affairs. It is instead in their best political interests to make it extremely plain who’s at fault to voters who are mad and scared about the catch-22 today’s higher education places on too many of their children’s futures: Can’t get a good job if you don’t have a degree, often can’t get a much better job plus have lots of debt regardless of whether you beat the 46 percent college dropout odds to get a degree.
Republicans should stop making excuses for this situation, and for heaven’s sake stop voting for policies that fuel it, and start showing creative leadership about how to responsibly deflate the special-interest pork bubble that U.S. higher education has become. For the right side to win this battle, there must be large and clear distinctions between Republican and Democrat proposals for higher education reform. The last thing Republicans need is “bipartisanship” that helps voters legitimately blame them along with Democrats for the weights both have tied to the ankles of America’s future.
Click here to learn more about and sign NAS’s petition to Congress to protect free speech in higher education, and to learn how to contact your representatives about it. Here’s a primer on what Congress should do in higher education instead.