It was no joke: The right really was coming after college next.
Last summer a spate of news items read like a parody, describing how conservatives suddenly were telling pollsters that America’s higher-education system was a pox on the country.
“Majority of Republicans say colleges are bad for America (yes, really)” read one such headline, from Newsweek. That the writer felt the need to add the parenthetical “yes, really” says it all, about how rapidly our country’s tribes are polarizing. It’s to the point we barely speak the same language anymore.
The Pew Research Center has since gone on to delve deeper into the subject, with polling data even more bonkers than the results last summer (more on that in a minute).
But as if to prove this wasn’t all fake news or some weird polling glitch, Republicans have in the meantime launched an actual attack on the nation’s colleges, through their $1.5 trillion tax-cut plan.
It’s been well covered that the Republican plan that passed the House would raise taxes on graduate students, of all people, by taxing what are called “tuition waivers.” This is akin to taxing college scholarships, as universities often waive all or part of the tuition for grad students who serve as research or teaching assistants while getting their master’s degrees or Ph.Ds.
Scores of university presidents and students are protesting the tax. The tax-hike provision was in the version that passed the US House, but not in the Senate bill. The two sides are meeting to come up with a single bill now.
That lawmakers are even considering paying for a huge cut for corporations out of the hides of our flagship public institutions is upside-down world. It’s exactly the opposite of the way the whole public-private compact is supposed to work.
Both the House and Senate also would raise taxes on private university endowments, which haven’t been taxed because the universities are nonprofits. The House bill also repeals the tax deductibility of interest for student loans.
Add them all up and the tax bill’s cost to higher education is $65 billion over 10 years, according to an analysis by the American Council on Education.
Beyond being backward, all this seems politically tone-deaf. The college system is regarded the world over as the headwaters of America’s success. Who supports draining it away?
Well, it turns out that now an extraordinary 80 percent of “core conservatives” — aka the Trump base — say that colleges and universities are bad for the country. Pew Research interviewed 5,000 voters last summer, and followed up with 2,000 of them later to create an in-depth look at our various political tribes.
Core conservatives are overwhelmingly anti-college, by 80 to 16 percent — a worse rating than they gave to labor unions or Islam. The other slice of Trump’s base, “Country First Conservatives,” are anti-college by 60 to 32 percent.
The research didn’t plumb the reasons for this. But recently, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., gave the conservative nutshell view of how colleges operate: “We’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange, we’ll train your children to hate our country.”
One of Trump’s campaign advisers, the Cato Institute’s Stephen Moore, was blunt about how that calculus wiggled into the tax bill.
“They go after university endowments, and universities have become play pens of the left,” he told Bloomberg.
So congressional Republicans are just doing what their constituents apparently want. Sticking it to college kids, and giving the money to CEOs.
I’d be shocked if these rollbacks on support for college make it into the final bill, because it still feels like a bad joke. But in looking at these poll numbers, it’s clear that cultural beliefs are seismically shifting in this country. I admit I don’t understand it all that well anymore.
By Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat is a columnist for the Seattle Times. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)