The conservative threat to American universities

The Washington Post reports: Frank Antenori shot the head off a rattlesnake at his back door last summer — a deadeye pistol blast from 20 feet. No college professor taught him that. The U.S. Army trained him, as a marksman and a medic, on the “two-way rifle range” of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Useful skills. Smart return on taxpayers’ investment. Not like the waste he sees at too many colleges and universities, where he says liberal professors teach “ridiculous” classes and indoctrinate students “who hang out and protest all day long and cry on our dime.”

“Why does a kid go to a major university these days?” said Antenori, 51, a former Green Beret who served in the Arizona state legislature. “A lot of Republicans would say they go there to get brainwashed and learn how to become activists and basically go out in the world and cause trouble.”

Antenori is part of an increasingly vocal campaign to transform higher education in America. Though U.S. universities are envied around the world, he and other conservatives want to reduce the flow of government cash to what they see as elitist, politically correct institutions that often fail to provide practical skills for the job market.

To the alarm of many educators, nearly every state has cut funding to public colleges and universities since the 2008 financial crisis. Adjusted for inflation, states spent $5.7 billion less on public higher education last year than in 2008, even though they were educating more than 800,000 additional students, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

In Arizona, which has had a Republican governor and legislature since 2009, lawmakers have cut spending for higher education by 54 percent since 2008; the state now spends $3,500 less per year on every student, according to the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Tuition has soared, forcing students to shoulder more of the cost of their degrees.

Meanwhile, public schools in Arizona and across the nation are welcoming private donors, including the conservative Koch brothers. In nearly every state, the Charles Koch Foundation funds generally conservative-leaning scholars and programs in politics, economics, law and other subjects. John Hardin, the foundation’s director of university relations, said its giving has tripled from about $14 million in 2011 to $44 million in 2015 as the foundation aims to “diversify the conversation” on campus.

People across the ideological spectrum are worried about the cost of college, skyrocketing debt from student loans and rising inequality in access to quality degrees. Educators fear the drop in government spending is making schools harder to afford for low- and middle-income students.

State lawmakers blame the cuts on falling tax revenue during the recession; rising costs of other obligations, especially Medicaid and prisons; and the need to balance their budgets. But even as prosperity has returned to many states, there is a growing partisan divide over how much to spend on higher education. Education advocates worry that conservative disdain threatens to undermine universities. [Continue reading…]

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