Over the past two years, Gov. Chris Christie, by picking and winning a battle against the teachers’ unions in one of the bluest states in the country, has shown other conservative leaders that it is possible to take on the Left’s most powerful special-interest groups.
Gov. Rick Perry may be in the process of teaching conservatives a similar lesson by taking on another sacred cow: the higher-education establishment.
Friday’s Washington Post article “Rick Perry wages assault on state’s higher education establishment” describes how Perry has picked a high-profile fight with the state’s university system. He is pushing reforms to improve the efficiency of the state’s universities and backing a potentially game-changing plan to create a low-cost $10,000 degree program.
Perry’s initiative is attracting fierce opposition — challenging higher education unsettles some big constituencies, like alumni groups that maybe resistant to change and potential threats to tradition.
But like Christie’s fight with the teachers’ unions, Perry’s effort to reform higher education could become a model for conservative reformers around the country.
First, runaway college costs are an important “kitchen table” issue for American families. After the economic woes of the past decade, many families are wondering how they are going to afford to send their kids to college (the yearly cost of attending an in-state four-year public college now tops $16,000 per year).
Second, like our public schools, America’s colleges are woefully underperforming. The authors of the recently published book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses found that 45 percent of college students show no improvement in critical skills after two years in college. Troubling statistics are forcing many families to question whether investing time and money in college is really worth it, particularly since many college graduates are struggling to find employment and appear to have gained few marketable skills.
Third, colleges are creating a heavy burden for taxpayers. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, higher-ed spending accounts for approximately 10 percent of state spending. And federal subsidies for higher education (including grants, loans, tax credits, and direct payments to schools) amount to well over $100 billion annually.
Fourth, colleges have long been an intellectual driver of progressivism in American life. I am sure I am not the only person who found my undergraduate and graduate school years to have been a tiring indoctrination in leftist ideas. It is surely no coincidence that young American voters are more inclined to vote for the Left after this indoctrination.
For too long, the Right has neglected the need to challenge and reform American higher education. But in the current political climate, reforming colleges and universities (as well as our student-aid policies) is an eminently winnable fight — and one that would yield big gains for students and taxpayers.
Conservative leaders around the country should follow Rick Perry’s lead.
— Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum.