NATIONAL AFFAIRS

An education challenge for the GOP

 
 
GERSON
GERSON

michaelgerson@washpost.com

In one of the lower policy points during the 2012 Republican primary campaign, Rick Santorum told a tea party group, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”

It was a complex electoral maneuver: Take a fragile middle-class expectation — and a powerful immigrant and working-class hope — and make it into an object of populist derision. Do you really want all that pipe smoking and port sipping and late-night dorm planning to undermine the Constitution?

Santorum was, in fact, the GOP candidate most conspicuously attempting to address working-class concerns. But the paradox only heightened the symbolism. Americans seek a valuable, but increasingly overpriced, good for their children. Republicans answer with a heaping helping of ideology. The indifference hurts as much as the issue.

Recent figures indicate that growing numbers of high school graduates are taking Santorum’s career advice. The share of high school graduates (66 percent) entering college last fall was the lowest since 2006. This may be the result, in part, of improving job prospects for those without post-secondary education. But it is difficult, in an economy that places a premium on skills, to regard a smaller aggregate stock of skills as a positive development.

A steady rise in the percentage of people who graduate from high school is one of the (rare) success stories in American education. The graduation rate increased from 71.7 percent in 2001 to 81 percent in 2012, with serious gains for Hispanic and African-American students. Maintaining this trajectory, graduation rates could reach 90 percent by 2020.

But after high school, what then? The benefits of a college education — in wages, employment levels and avoiding poverty — remain comparatively robust, but largely because the prospects of those with a high school diploma have dimmed. In 1979, according to the Pew Research Center, the typical high school graduate earned 77 percent of what a college graduate made. Among millennials, it’s 62 percent.

For the poor, a college degree remains an important avenue of upward mobility. But for those in the middle class, the aspiration of a diploma is increasingly mixed with fear. The economic returns of a college degree are stagnant. Many who hold one are underemployed. Still, the alternative is worse.

At the same time, the cost of a four-year college degree has ballooned. For the middle class, an average year of tuition is roughly half of household income. So both students and parents borrow massively to purchase a degree that can cost as much as a house, knowing it has diminishing value and used to cost less. It is not a wrong decision, but hardly a satisfying one.

But the fact that college costs have risen faster than nearly any other good or service is not a law of nature. Higher education is a failing market, in which most of the incentives are set toward higher tuitions and higher borrowing. The student-loan system makes it easier for students to pay more than they can afford and so for schools to charge more than they are worth, while the accreditation system restricts experiments with new methods of teaching and learning.

Market-oriented conservatives should be coming up with ideas to shift the incentives of the system, rather than continuing to inflate the bubble with additional debt. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have set out proposals that would widen the accreditation process for lower-priced educational alternatives and increase the data given to students about potential earnings in various fields. It is a start. Barely.

For Republicans, the issue of higher education is emblematic. There are a number of vital but creaky social systems — elementary and secondary education, healthcare, the tax code, the immigration system, the social safety net — in need of serious, market-based reform. A party of innovation, redesign and repair might have considerable appeal.

But a party of opposition, faux populism and reflexive anti-government ideology is not up this task. Given our level of institutional dysfunction, the country needs Republicans to be a source of solutions.

© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
MARTIN

    TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP

    Trade deal could cost us jobs, wages

    Each year, Labor Day serves as a reminder of the contributions that American workers have made to our country’s strength, prosperity and well-being. It falls around the time that members of Congress start to return from recess in their districts to Washington, D.C. This Labor Day, we want our representatives to get back to work with one thing in mind: Their first priority must be to protect Florida’s quality of life, including our jobs, wages, communities and environment.

  • ANITA HILL

    Anita Hill: There’s still a disconnect on gender bias

    Anita Hill.

  • HISPANICS

    Conservatives must improve their message to woo Hispanics

    Half a century ago, we saw the spark of powerful ideas that changed the face of America. Some became legislation, such as the War on Poverty. Others became potent cultural trends, like the sexual revolution. Less noticed but no less impactful was the onset of a radical change in our nation’s demographic makeup.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category