Is There A Conservative Conspiracy to Destroy College?

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Andrew P. Kelly and KC Deane

Despite our better instincts, we looked at Andrew Leonard’s recent piece on the conservative plot to “wreck higher-ed.” He begins with an oft-heard although accurate lament about public colleges: state funding is decreasing while costs and prices continue to climb. However, Leonard’s argument quickly veers into conspiracy-land:

There’s a political context to the transformation.  Higher education is in crisis because costs are rising at the same time that public funding support is falling. That decline in public support is no accident.  Conservatives don’t like big government and they don’t like taxes, and increasingly, they don’t even like the entire way that the humanities are taught in the United States. 

It’s absolutely no accident that in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, three of the most conservative governors in the country are leading the push to incorporate MOOCs in university curricula.

According to Leonard, Rick Perry, Rick Scott, and Scott Walker are “the three horseman of the MOOC apocalypse” who boast “undisguised scorn for the whole enterprise of higher education, insofar as it pertains to anything more than equipping people with marketable skills.”

It’s not exactly earth-shattering to suggest that decisions over allocating public funds are “political.” But Leonard’s paranoia is off for two reasons. First, spending cuts are a national trend, not a partisan conspiracy. Second, he ignores the fact that Perry, Walker, and Scott have all called on their public university systems to create low-cost degree programs. They haven’t “outsourced” higher education so much as they’ve challenged their public institutions to innovate.

On the finance side, Leonard is right about one thing: higher education funding has suffered during the recession. Each year the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) Association publishes data on how much states spend on higher education per full-time student (expressed as educational appropriations per FTE). Tracing this figure from 2009-2012, we can calculate changes in appropriations over time to see how they jibe with which party controls state government. (Note: we opted to adjust the 2009 figures for inflation using the CPI, since SHEEO uses an inappropriate inflation adjustment). We compare the change over the period to the political environment in each state: which party controlled the governor’s mansion, did they have unified or divided government, and so on.

Bipartisan Support for Cutting Higher-Ed

The national trend is marked: between 2009 and 2012, 47 states cut higher education spending per FTE. The median (mean) reduction was just over 23 percent (22 percent). Just three states saw increases: Illinois (unified Democratic government), North Dakota (unified Republican government), and Rhode Island (divided government with Republican governor).

When they have had unified government, both Democrats and Republicans have cut higher education funding. If we look at the seven states with unified Democratic control over this period, six reduced funding. Those six (excluding Illinois’s 2.8 percent increase) reduced funding by between 19 and 31 percent (West Virginia and Washington respectively) for an average reduction of 22.9 percent.

Of the nine states under unified Republican control, eight reduced funding by an average of 25.2 percent, ranging from a 0.2 percent decline in South Dakota to 42.8 percent reduction in Idaho. Texas, one of Leonard’s great villains, reduced funding by 9.2 percent (less than any of the Democratically-controlled states). Florida cut funding by 27 percent, which outranked all but one unified Democratic state. So while Republican-controlled states did cut higher education spending, they were not alone; unified Democratic governments more than held their own. (Of the 17 states with divided government, 16 reduced higher ed spending by an average of 25 percent during the period).

Shifts in which party controls the governorship provide an additional test. Seventeen states experienced a shift in the party of their sitting governor during the period. Among the twelve where a Republican replaced a Democrat, the Democratic governors all oversaw reductions in funding between 2009 and 2010, with an average reduction of about 9 percent. The new Republican governors continued the reductions in ’11-’12, with an average cut of 11.3 percent. Eight out of 12 Republicans oversaw cuts that were larger than those under their Democratic predecessor (including Scott Walker, whose 11.5 percent cut was larger than the 2.2 percent decline over the prior years).

Among the five states with the opposite transition, four of the Republican governors cut funding during ’09-’10 (Vermont increased it) for an average reduction of 8.1 percent. All five incoming Democrats cut funding in ’11-12 by an average of 6.4 percent. Two of the five Democrats oversaw larger cuts than their predecessors.

These data suggest a bipartisan national trend, not a conservative conspiracy. The vast majority of states–whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats–have cut higher education funding in response to budget deficits.

 Public Higher-Ed Is Not Under Assault

More broadly, the argument that conservative governors have cut funding because they want to replace universities with online learning has it backwards. Instead, many governors–Republicans and Democrats alike–have pushed their state systems to innovate precisely because they have less money to spend on higher education. Oddly, Leonard criticizes the three Republican governors for trying to create affordable, state-run degree programs. Tell us, where do you see private MOOCs in Texas’ current slate of $10,000 degree programs? We mostly see public campuses working in tandem to cobble together low cost pathways, most of which rely on in-person instruction. Likewise, Walker’s “flexible degree” is housed within the state system. Faculty members have voiced concerns about a lack of input in the process, but the flex degree has hardly been “outsourced:” Ray Cross, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and UW Extension, is overseeing the effort.

Meanwhile, the governor who has most aggressively bought into MOOC-mania happens to be a Democrat: California’s Jerry Brown. He just inked a deal with for-profit MOOC provider Udacity to provide online, introductory math courses to Cal State students at $150 a pop. So why isn’t he Leonard’s fourth horseman? Oh, right, because Brown’s a Democrat, and according to Leonard his preference for MOOCs is not accompanied by the same “undisguised scorn for the whole enterprise of higher education” as his Republican colleagues.

It’s important to distinguish here between efforts to encourage innovation and the temptation to ration public money toward particular academic disciplines. Leonard rightfully points out that Republicans’ push for higher education reform has, at times, conflated innovation with their inclination to spend less public money on the humanities. Before announcing his $10-K BA proposal, for instance, Florida’s Rick Scott knocked the value of anthropology degrees, and a Florida task force recently suggested that humanities majors should pay higher tuition.

But this is central planning, not innovation. The beauty of a higher education market that encourages innovation is that the state need not be so heavy-handed. Schools and departments that embrace the imperative to deliver quality education at a lower price will be rewarded with more students; those who resist will have a harder time attracting enrollments.  

The real question, then, is how should leaders respond to the higher education budget crunch? By simply letting colleges close their doors to new students when state money runs out, as California’s community colleges have done? By only spending money on a subset of programs that the government decides have value? Or should we applaud when leaders from either party work to develop affordable degree options for their state residents? Closing the doors to students seems significantly more regressive than creating new options that can serve more people at lower cost.

Critics will argue that these are false dichotomies and that states should just fund higher education at prior levels. If the trend in 47 states is any indication, they are unlikely to find a particularly sympathetic audience in either party.


Andrew P. Kelly is a Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; KC Deane is a Research Associate there.

(Photo: California Governor Jerry Brown. Credit: Annenberg TV News.)


  • Andrew Kelly

    Andrew P. Kelly is the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform and a resident scholar in education policy studies at AEI.

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18 thoughts on “Is There A Conservative Conspiracy to Destroy College?

  1. No need for any conservative conspiricy to destroy our colleges. A combination of leftist academics, and greedy administrators, have managed to do it to themselves.

  2. Andrew Leonard is obviously unfamiliar with Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s great love for Texas A&M University. Perry simply challenged state colleges in Texas to find a way to offer college degrees for $10,000 or less. The result appears to be affordable degree programs for students who just want a degree to get a job.
    The cost savings come from taking freshman and sophomore classes in community colleges plus AP classes in high school combined with higher level classes at some of the less expensive state universities. Practical degrees in 4 years or less for $10,000 tuition vs. 5 years of partying while pursuing a worthless degree. Who really cares more about education?

  3. You took seriously an article from “Salon”???
    It appears that most of their political articles can be summarized as “Conservatives are evil”.
    I certainly appreciate your usage of factual data to rebut the Salon writers “Conservatives are anti-education and/or evil” political hit piece.
    Now let’s see if the Salon writer has the stones to engage you in a factual response (notice I did not say a hysterical emotional response).

  4. How can that possibly happen given that Academia is a majority owned subsidiary of Liberals?
    The Lady Doth Protest too Much…

  5. “Second, he ignores the fact that Perry, Walker, and Scott have all called on their public university systems to create low-cost degree programs.”
    And there’s Andrew Leonard’s real worry. What he fears is a conservative conspiracy to end the featherbedding of public universities with vast numbers of deadbeat administrators.
    It’s not about education; it’s about protecting the sinecures.

  6. We have a higher education system propped up and supported by hiring regulations in the private and public sectors that use college degrees as de-facto and in most cases – unnecessary job requirements…
    Hundreds of colleges formed/expanded and millions of college graduates created to satisfy these false – government created requirements…
    Too many college ‘graduates’ with high school skills but higher expectations. Too many colleges. Too few jobs that actually (I mean really) require 4 years of post high school education that can be acquired in a college.
    Is it any wonder that this higher education bubble has no substance, no foundation and cannot support itself?

  7. Here’s hoping that some of the creative innovations will lead the way away from the conformity of PC thought on campus.
    Are there any public universities that are conservative in nature? Would that there were even one or two solidly conservative public universities out there. Universities that would offer an alternative to the prevalent four year debauch of naval-gazing, anti-American, gender bending, sex-act obsessed, drug and alcohol fueled deconstructionist curriculum on one side. A university that reliably presents, instead, an atmosphere wherein could flourish a different kind of college student, a university promoting the robust intellectualism the stems from study of the western canon. Conservative students would appreciate the ability to choose a university permeated with wholesome values that encourage students to think about building families and constructing their adulthood. in other words it would be a public university in the manner of Hillsdale College on the other hand.

  8. why give these lefty professors your hard earned money
    tech schools and trade schools are far better
    we don’t need anymore lawyers
    we don’t need anymore teachers
    we don’t need anymore sociology people
    etc etc
    we need infrastructure people
    people that know how to build
    people that know electricity
    people that know electonic, mechanics, operating heavy machinery
    etc etc

  9. Why has a college education become so expensive? My take is it’s because of the ready availability of student loan and grant money backed by the Government. College administrators are simply jacking up tuition in an attempt to get their slice of the pie. So in effect Andrew Leonard is arguing for Government to continue the Death Spiral that has become the financing of a college education.

  10. If you do question the quality or validity of the college degree frequently the accusation of “anti-intellectual” along with education as only job training. It’s gobsmackingly obvious to anyone with half a brain that the college for all concept has been a miserable failure. Tens of thousand of young people take on student loans but fail to graduate with a degree. Just another ponzi scheme to enrich – or at least employ – a certain class of individuals at the cost of another. This push is like so many other public policies – poorly conceived and even more poorly executed. As Pink Floyd asked..Mother should I trust the government? Answer: NO

  11. Actually, our academic class is doing an excellent job of destroying college all on their own. Most schools now have more administrators then they have instructors…might this be a primary driver of rising costs?
    How about increased government subsidies? Make more money available to students and colleges always seem to raise tuition to suck up more of that money.

  12. In the same way that there is a conservative conspiracy to destroy Detroit. Conservatives are, wisely, increasingly reluctant to shelter leftists from the consequences of their own fecklessness.

  13. Is there a conservative conspiracy? Perhaps we could appoint a dean for the prevention of conservative conspiracies. This dean, together with several assistant deans and attendant staff can meet and get to the problem fairly quickly.
    But they won’t be able to meet till a month from Tuesday because the Dean of academic life, with the assistant dean of rock climbing walls, the associate dean of overpriced, 110 cable channel dorm rooms, and the elimination of Chick-fil-a from campus dean together with the 23 diversity deans are hosting a national conference on “How to distract students while racking up their debt”

  14. “The real question, then, is how should leaders respond to the higher education budget crunch?”
    Well, that depends on your goals. If you want to funnel public money to favored constituencies, then you need not make any changes. Just keep the checks flowing, and too bad for whomever has their ox gored.
    If you want to attempt to educate the same number of people (or more!) with a smaller amount of (quickly depreciating) cash, you innovate. And too bad for whomever has their ox gored.

  15. Karl Popper wrote of the advancing culture of academic fraud he called “Scientism” arising from the dialectical materialism and reductionism that had become a modern fashion during the early and mid 20th Century. He decried what he saw as the oncoming collapse of scholarship; the betrayal and systemic misuse of scientific method.
    By definition, administrating is not managing. We can now see the toll taken by the ruling cult of administrators who preside over academe with their policing cadre of legalists and concretizing reductionists.
    In crises today are institutions unmanaged for decades; devoid of management talent; operating on ritual, hubris and the tyranny of budgetary politics and rote procedure.
    What else could one expect from a subculture that continues to aggressively practice race phrenology more than a century after being exposed as a scandalous, unscientific fraud. They still cannot tell us how many drops of which blood makes one what color, yet they inculcate for money a religious identity psychosis based upon on what color a person’s skin tone happens to be.
    Homo sapiens kaleidoscorpus? Yes. That must be it. Perhaps another Nobel for Obama?

  16. Excuse me, but I think College was pretty much destroyed by the time Progressives got done with it…if they are done with it.

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