Scott Walker was never going to win fans among the faculty at the University of Wisconsin. Four years ago, Wisconsin professors were in the state capitol protesting the governor’s plans to limit public employee collective bargaining powers. But, boy, did he make enemies this month when he proposed $300 million more in budget cuts to the state’s university and altering the words of the school’s mission. Walker has clearly made some tactical missteps in recent weeks—and the fact that he himself doesn’t have a college degree doesn’t add to his credibility. But Walker’s problems are those almost everyone in the Republican field could soon have. As we embark on another long election season, it is worth asking how conservatives should talk about college. Scott Walker started the conversation, but every candidate is going to have to address it.
The problems of American higher education are widely known. Tuition is too high, student debt has become crippling, students are woefully underprepared for the workforce, political activism is put ahead of real learning, students spend little time in class and even less time studying, and traditional liberal arts education has been replaced by trendy classes on race, class, and gender.
For liberals, the answers to the economic issues, at least, are obvious. If we simply throw more money at the problem—higher levels of financial aid, free community college tuition, more research grants to public and private colleges—the rest will take care of itself. There are some on the left who want to tie greater funding to so-called accountability measures, like President Obama’s recently proposed college rating system, but ultimately they want the government to pick higher education’s winners and losers.
For conservatives, things are more complicated. While it has been obvious to economists for decades that higher levels of federal financial aid have driven tuition prices ever upward, voters rarely want to hear that Congress should cut scholarships to poor kids. First and foremost, it is the job of Republican presidential candidates to explain the perverse incentives at work here—college administrators jack up prices because they know that taxpayers will foot the bill. According to data from the Labor Department, the price index for college tuition grew by 79.5 percent between 2003 and 2013. Medical costs, by contrast, grew 43.1 percent, and the consumer price index grew 26.7 percent.
And the more expensive colleges are disproportionately rewarded by the current system. Instead of giving students a voucher toward paying tuition, we hand them more money if they choose a higher-priced school. Which is why Pell Grants have turned from a program to help the poor reach college to a broad middle-class entitlement: In 2010, 60 percent of college students received a grant.
Finally, Republican candidates need to show how the government has pushed private lenders out of the student loan business, making rates artificially low and leaving taxpayers on the hook for an even greater share of the bill.
What about the other side of the balance sheet, though? Couldn’t colleges do more to cut their costs and make higher education more affordable? Yes, administrative staff has been growing at about twice the level of instructional staff for over a decade now. According to the Mackinac Center in Michigan, for instance, the number of administrators and service staff in Michigan’s 15 state universities increased from 19,576 in 2005 to 22,472 in 2009. And average compensation increased by 13 percent. Between 1975 and 2005, spending on American higher education tripled while the faculty-student ratio remained the same. Which is one reason Scott Walker was met with such opprobrium when he suggested professors at the University of Wisconsin teach more courses per year.
For senior faculty, this is not such a bad idea. Many older tenured professors do lead a pretty cushy life at taxpayers’ expense—at elite private schools and public flagship ones, they teach fewer than two courses a semester. At the other end of the spectrum are adjunct professors, who have little job security and low pay. They oversee large numbers of students and have almost no time to interact with them outside the classroom. Increasing their workloads will only bring a lower level of instruction to students who need it most.
Then there is graduate education, which, especially in the social sciences and the humanities, has become a huge waste of money and a dead-end career path for many students. As Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker noted in their book Higher Education?, between 2005 and 2007, American universities awarded over 100,000 doctoral degrees but created just 16,000 assistant professorships.