At least he’s not mandating creationism.
Mitt Romney’s plans for higher education  thus far are silly, but not catastrophic. Already that puts him ahead of much of his party.
It was not always thus. There was once a time -- not all that long ago, really -- when Republicans took public higher education seriously. The SUNY system never had a better friend than Nelson Rockefeller, for example. The University of California system even survived two terms of Governor Ronald Reagan, despite occasional snipes about hippies.
And that makes sense. As conservatives, their burden involved squaring arbitrary economic outcomes with a general cultural sense of the value of fair play. Education offered a nice way to thread that political needle. The smart and driven kid who was born poor could work hard in a public system and work his way into the middle class and above. As long as that was true, those on top could plausibly claim that the overall system is fair, even if they just happen to be a whole lot wealthier than everyone else. As long as the economic hierarchy was at least open to something like meritocratic striving, those who were left out could be blamed for their own fate.
Over the past decade or so, though, Republicans -- as opposed to conservatives, which they are not any more in any meaningful sense -- have shifted their position. Now they’re openly hostile to higher education, except in for-profit form. Rick Santorum’s “what a snob!” comment, for all of its artlessness, pretty much encapsulated the id of the party in its current form. (The same could be said of Santorum generally.) Some of that is the lingering residue of hippie-bashing, but the recent surge in stridency can’t be explained that way. (I don’t recall a hippie resurgence in 2010.) I think it goes a little deeper than that.
The higher education landscape in its current form represents a direct disproof of the core of Republican ideology. That’s why they hate it so much. It reminds them of the conservatism they left behind.
According to Republican -- as opposed to conservative -- ideology, anything “public” is inferior to anything “private.” By definition, anything private is supposed to be more efficient, more responsive, and less prone to corruption. Anything public is presumed to be wasteful, sclerotic, and rotten to the core.
That’s a relatively new wrinkle in Republican thought. Back when it was a conservative party, it had a conservative’s respect for institutions. It’s hard to imagine now, but when Senator Bob Dole voted to support affirmative action in colleges and universities -- which he did -- he did so in the name of preserving them. The idea -- perfectly consistent with the conservatism that runs through Burke to Oakeshott -- was that institutions need to bend so they do not break. The classic understanding held that people are inherently flawed, impulsive, selfish, and vain, and that institutions were required to protect them from their own base impulses. Institutions taught restraint, which was necessary to allow a civic culture to co-exist with a predatory economy. This was the conservatism of noblesse oblige and civic endowments. It was the conservatism that sponsored cultural programming on PBS.
(It’s hard to remember now, but in the “culture wars” of the 1980’s, it was the conservatives who preached the virtues of the classics. Allan Bloom became a national figure on the strength of his advocacy of the old “from Plato to NATO” reading list. The conservatives were the partisans of “timeless truths.” They once understood their own roots. Now the closest they come to the classics is Ayn Rand, a sort of lobotomized Nietzsche.)
What’s gone now -- and badly missed -- is that sense of the value, and necessity, of restraint and of the institutions that teach it. The current Republican party has dumbed down its message to “private good, public bad,” and has largely even forgotten why. (On foreign policy, its message has become “war good, peace bad,” for much the same reason: it has mistaken restraint for weakness. And even within the military itself -- once the great exception to the rule about “public bad” -- this is the party that turned over power and resources to private contractors.)
Against that worldview, higher ed in its current form stands as a powerful rebuke. That’s why it drives them around the bend.
In direct contradiction to what their ideology would predict, public colleges, by and large, are cheaper than private ones. For-profit colleges are far more expensive than public colleges and universities, and have nowhere near the respect in the culture of their public competitors. Colleges that “social engineer” their entering classes without apology -- horror! -- do remarkably well at populating the elite, and maintaining the respect of the country as a whole. Community colleges, long the underfunded stepchildren of higher ed, prove repeatedly that a sense of social good and public mission can go a long way towards compensating for a severe lack of money. That’s not supposed to be possible.
Worse, in higher ed, having more money doesn’t always make you right. People who make forty thousand a year feel entitled to pass judgment on people who make hundreds of times more than that, citing nothing more exclusive than “evidence” or “truth.” Deference is given to the best argument, rather than to the highest authority; in the very best sense of the word, it’s irreverent. And most of its employees -- adjuncts most spectacularly, but pretty much across the board -- forego higher incomes to work in it. For a party that worships wealth, that amounts to apostasy.
Mitt Romney is smarter than many of his compatriots, so he doesn’t go out of his way to attack empirical science, like Senator Santorum, or the very idea of humanistic study, like Governor Scott of Florida. But his policy proposals outlined so far -- see here  for a nice summary -- encapsulate handily the failings of Republican thought on higher ed. He proposes getting rid of direct lending and putting banks back in as middlemen on student loans, hoping that nobody will notice that “privatization” of loans actually costs more. He upholds Full Sail University as exemplary, hoping nobody will notice that it’s more expensive, and less respected or successful, than its non-profit counterparts. He proposes deregulating for-profit higher education generally, as if its issues stemmed from too much restraint, as opposed to too little.
Every single one of those policies rests on a failure of Republican ideology to describe how the world works. That’s why he doesn’t like to talk about them much. When efficiency and privatization conflict, as they do in higher ed, we see what the party really values. At this stage of its development, it chooses privatization. And the bad conscience of knowing that privatization actually costs more drives them batty. It makes them angry. And knowing that we know drives them even battier.
The net effect of Romney’s proposals thus far would be to starve the inexpensive public sector and feed both banks and for-profit colleges with the proceeds. On any objective grounds, that’s ridiculous, and unworthy of respect. But by the standards of what the Republican party has allowed itself to become, well, it could be worse. In the meantime, I’ll hold out hope that the party eventually rediscovers its conservative roots. Some things are worth preserving. And if the Republicans would finally re-embrace conservatism, the Democrats could finally let it go, and we could finally have debates worth having.