Why Conservatives Are Turning Against Higher Education

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This article was updated on August 20, 2019 at 5:53pm

A native of small-town Missouri who excelled at Stanford and Yale Law School, Josh Hawley, the junior senator from Missouri, is keenly aware of how higher education can serve as a springboard into the elite and the challenges facing those it leaves behind. But that’s not to say he’s a cheerleader for the higher-education industry. Like many on the right, the senator often speaks of the higher-education sector as a kind of cartel, one that has left America’s non-college-educated majority out in the cold.

At a recent gathering of conservatives, for example, Hawley drew a straight line from the declining economic prospects of non-college-educated workers to a number of social maladies. “Just about any American worker without a four-year college degree will have a hard time in the cosmopolitan economy. Maybe that’s one reason why marriage rates among working-class Americans are falling, why birth rates are falling, why life expectancy is falling. All the while, an epidemic of suicide and drug addiction ravages every sector, every age group, every geography of the working class.”

This divergence of the economic prospects of the college-educated and non-college-educated is hardly a new development. What is new, though, is the growing interest among Republican lawmakers, Hawley included, in doing something about it legislatively. One implication of the senator’s remarks is that Congress ought to be more solicitous of the interests of the non-college-educated, and to that end the senator recently introduced legislation that, according to The Hill, would allow low-income students to use federal dollars currently earmarked for higher education to pursue vocational training.

Leaving aside the merits of Hawley’s proposal, there is reason to believe that it is good politics, or rather good Republican politics. As the Pew Research Center finds in a new survey, there’s been a sharp increase in dissatisfaction with America’s colleges and universities among Republicans in recent years, and it makes perfect sense for right-of-center policy makers to want to do something about it.

Consider the changing composition of America’s major-party coalitions. Shortly after the 2018 midterms, Adam Harris observed that the Trump presidency was accelerating the “diploma divide,” which refers to the starkly different voting patterns of college-educated white voters and those without a degree, a split that is unique to whites. In the midterms, Republicans did 16 points better among whites without a college degree, while securing the votes of only 45 percent of their college-educated counterparts. In contrast, when George H. W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988, he did so in part by winning college-educated white voters by 20 points.

Another factor in the diploma divide is the gender gap in college attendance and completion. In the 1980s, women began graduating from college in higher numbers than men, and since then, their advantage has only widened. Today, you have to go up to the 60-and-over demographic before you find men outnumbering women among college graduates. The diploma divide has also had implications for partisan geography. When Republicans lost the House in 2006, half of their vulnerable seats were in districts that had more college graduates than the national average; that number was 70 percent for the 2018 midterms.

Finding themselves firmly on the college-educated side of the diploma divide, Democrats are naturally committed to increasing subsidies for higher education. Plans to cancel outstanding student-loan debt and eliminate tuition at public universities, such as that of Senator Bernie Sanders, would subsidize the industry to the tune of several trillion dollars. While Sanders’s sweeping plan might be understood as an appeal to the younger voters who have buoyed his presidential candidacy, it also reached a more niche audience: the many people who earn their livelihood—in one way or another—from what Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute and Grant Addison, a deputy editor of the Washington Examiner, unaffectionately call “the college-industrial complex.”

Much as supporters of robust military spending tend to have both ideological and more prosaic political reasons for their position, Democrats interested in subsidizing higher education are presumably not oblivious to how much their party relies on college towns like Ann Arbor, Madison, and Raleigh-Durham for votes and small-dollar donations. And, of course, a growing share of non-elite universities could use a hand from government as their business models come under strain.

The higher-education sector is more and more threatened by growing numbers of graduates whose diplomas are not the golden tickets they had hoped for. A report prepared by my Manhattan Institute colleague Oren Cass observes that 41 percent of bachelor’s-degree holders work in jobs for which their degrees are unnecessary. Even people who graduate with a coveted STEM degree are facing challenges in the labor market. A report prepared by Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn, and B. Lindsay Lowell found that half of STEM grads move into non-STEM fields, and a third of these lane-switchers say they pivoted because their preferred field lacked opportunities. Broadly speaking, the wage premium conferred by a college education has not risen since the start of the century, and the bottom quarter of bachelor’s-degree holders have seen their wages fall below those of the average high-school graduate.

Colleges nervous about these lackluster outcomes must also must contend with unfavorable demographic trends. America saw a brief spike in births in the 1980s and ’90s as the large Baby Boomer generation reached its prime childbearing years, but has witnessed a precipitous decline in the years since. Writing in Bloomberg, Justin Fox describes how colleges survived previous demographic dips because of growth in the share of graduating high-school seniors drawn onto campus by the growing college-wage premium.

With that incentive dulled, America’s many non-elite colleges, universities, and community colleges are expecting their enrollment numbers to begin to decline in the middle of the next decade. That is, unless a large-hearted politician from one of New England’s most charming college towns can push through a bill to dramatically subsidize the cost of attending these schools.

As for college-skeptical Republicans, who now find themselves firmly on the other side of the diploma divide from their Democratic counterparts, their political imperative is rather different. With their growing reliance on the votes of non-college-educated adults, and in particular non-college-educated men, they have much to gain by dislodging higher education from its lofty position as the gatekeeper of middle-class prosperity. Hawley’s proposed legislation represents an effort to capitalize on this opportunity, but there is more that could be done.

According to higher-education critics on the right, the problem with America’s current approach to post-secondary education is that it channels the lion’s share of resources to colleges, which service a relatively privileged third of the country, while the remaining two-thirds of Americans are left to fend for themselves without the funding or training necessary to acquire a skill that offers an attractive wage in our globalized economy. What’s more, at some point along the way, the value of college became divorced from skill acquisition, to the point where 61 percent of employers told researchers at Harvard Business School that they turned away employees who possessed the requisite skills and experiences for job openings simply because they did not have a diploma, as Hess and Addison report in a recent essay in National Affairs.

Hess and Addison argue that the rise of the diploma as a signaling mechanism dates back to the Civil Rights Act. As late as 1963, 84 percent of jobs required some sort of general aptitude or job-specific test during the interview process. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was drafted, though, it included language aimed at ensuring that these interview exams were not stalking horses for discrimination. In the 1971 Supreme Court decision Griggs v. Duke Power Company, the Court ruled that employer tests were only acceptable if the material was job related (as opposed to general or aptitude based), and in cases where preemployment tests have a disparate impact on protected groups, employers must show both that the test is predictive of job performance and that there is no less discriminatory method of separating out unqualified applicants. Hess and Addison argue that the fear of being sued pushed employers away from tests and toward the pursuit of bachelor’s-degree holders, which serves to signal a set of core competencies, many of which are what we consider basic character and social skills, rather than hard skills.

One way of understanding recent history, therefore, is that changes in the law led employers to place a higher value on college diplomas at the same time that the availability of middle-skill jobs came under pressure from the rise of offshoring and automation. Both of these trends contributed to the polarization of the U.S. labor market, which provides high-skill, high-wage jobs at one end and low-skill, low-wage jobs at the other, with a hard-to-bridge chasm in between. Understandably, policy makers responded by devoting more resources to the higher-education industry, which was meant to act as just such a bridge.

But whatever hopes we had for higher education acting as our bridge from the industrial age to the knowledge economy, conservative thinkers are now urging a different path. For their part, Hess and Addison argue that we need to once again allow employers to select for skills, rather than for crude proxies of skill. They note that private actors could begin bringing legal action against employers who insist upon college degrees for seemingly low-skill jobs under the same Griggs v. Duke Power Company precedent. College degrees are far from evenly distributed across racial and ethnic groups, and the fact that degree requirements have not already been challenged on these grounds is evidence of the rarefied place college education occupies in our culture.

While Hess and Addison focus on the demand for higher education, which they see as inflated by a signaling mechanism run amok, Oren Cass’s recent report focuses more on the supply of post-secondary opportunities suited to the non-college-bound. Specifically, he calls for shifting federal subsidies from traditional higher education to a new workforce-training grant that would give employers a larger role in preparing the non-college-bound majority for success.

The core insight of Cass’s proposal is that the current training regime fails because it is insufficiently tailored to employer needs. This point is best understood by examining the Cass proposal in detail. The $10,000 payout tied to workforce-training grants would go to any private-sector employer who takes on a trainee, defined broadly as someone who spends 15 hours a week on the job and another 15 hours receiving some type of training, with limits to help ensure that the program benefits those who need it most. The government can afford to take a hands-off approach in regulating what type of training is offered, because as Cass says, participants will vote with their feet, abandoning unproductive training programs for more interesting options.

As for how the federal government would finance this new program, Cass suggests repurposing some of the money that currently goes to colleges, perhaps redirecting half of the $150 billion over a 10-year period, giving colleges enough time to adjust to a leaner business model and employers a chance to think about how to best attract and spend the grant money.

Will conservative politicians embrace ambitious ideas like those advanced by Hess, Addison, and Cass? The idea that college is an invaluable engine of upward mobility is firmly planted in the national imagination, and no doubt many conservatives will balk at efforts to diminish its central role. But the diploma divide will, I suspect, continue to concentrate the minds of Hawley and other ambitious politicians on the right looking to create more accessible, lower-risk paths to upward mobility than gambling on college degrees that might not pay off.