Blue versus red states: Higher education policy-making in the US
Avoided was an expected much bigger electoral victory by Republicans and a clear majority in both houses of Congress. The net result for federal higher education policy is relative stability, although with some important caveats, including debates on raising the debt level of the federal government.
A reminder that in the US there is no ministry of education. Federal policy is largely limited to financial aid in the form of grants and loans to individual students and funding by multiple agencies for academic research. There is a lesser but important role involving the approval of independent accrediting agencies and monitoring for violations of civil rights by the US Department of Education.
Most funding and regulatory power lies with state governments and their elected lawmakers. Hence, many of the battles and debates over higher education are at the state level, and here we see a significant difference in the political environment between ‘blue’ (Democratic majority) and ‘red’ (Republican majority) states.
Debates at the federal level
This does not mean that national political leaders do not use their position, rhetoric and sometimes vitriol to blame universities and colleges for an array of ills – including high tuition fees and alarming student debt levels incurred more significantly at private and for-profit institutions (with mostly affordable publics lost in the national discourse).
Donald Trump and many in his party have also painted academic communities as oppressive liberal bastions intolerant of conservative viewpoints and champions of wokism – not all entirely incorrect and powerfully echoed in conservative media outlets.
Through it all, and as noted, Biden’s higher education agenda remains relatively intact as we move into 2023.
This includes a successful marginal increase in the Pell Grant – the primary federal loan programme for lower-income students. Under his administration, the federal government also allocated substantial COVID relief funds to help universities temporarily transition to more online courses and to cope with losses in tuition revenue due to falling enrolments in many states.
Biden made campaign promises to make community colleges free – a vast network of primarily two-year colleges offering vocational and adult programmes and courses that can lead to transferring to a four-year institution. He also planned to cancel student debt for a large portion of former students, whether they graduated or not.
But those two unrealistic promises have morphed over the last year or so. The free community college bid was in part Biden’s effort during the 2020 democratic presidential primary to provide a version of proposals by competitors, like Bernie Sanders, for free public university and college, with no regard to a student’s individual or family income.
As in other parts of the world, free higher education is popular, even if it is largely an incomplete thought when it comes to how to pay for it.
The proposal for free community colleges (virtually all of which are public, local based and largely funded institutions) fell with the failure of a previously US$3 trillion and expansive ‘Build Back Better’ proposal by Biden and liberal democrats.
Later, Biden, using his powers as an adept moderate and compromiser and with slim majorities in the House and Senate, got a smaller funding package passed that focused on rebuilding America’s eroding infrastructure. The free community college scheme was dropped. The earlier campaign proposal lacked specificity as to how it would work and its potential progressive impact.
Existing fees are very low in these local institutions and most low-income students already have access to Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid that make study tuition free or nearly so for the most needy; the bigger problem is that many students do not know about the various federal and state financial aid programmes and how to apply for aid.
No-tuition-fee schemes at non-selective higher education institutions also correlate with high drop-out rates and an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars.
Similarly, Biden offered a more moderate proposal for relieving, if not ending, student debt than many of his Democratic rivals in the presidential election.
Instead of a blanket debt relief promise for all, no matter their income, he and his policy advisors imagined a more narrow programme for those who took out federal loans: debt relief of up to US$10,000 per former student and an additional US$10,000 for those who had a Pell Grant but also took on additional federal loans.
About half of all past students in the US took out a student loan. Of those who did, 32.2% owe US$10,000 or less in federal debt; and 74.2% owe US$40,000 or less – not counting those who took out debt at the postgraduate level to become lawyers, doctors and other generally high-income professions.
The Biden plan is also income-dependent, offering debt relief for federal loans (not for private bank loans) to individuals making less than US$125,000, or up to US$250,000 for those jointly filing their tax return with their spouse or legal partner.
In the midst of the COVID pandemic, Biden had also previously suspended all federal loan repayments – part of the larger effort to mitigate the feared economic impact of the pandemic.
Biden’s debt relief scheme applies to those who attended a tertiary education institution before 2020. Some 40 million Americans would be eligible at a cost of approximately US$400 billion over 30 years. White House officials say the debt relief programme is for lower- and middle-income families. How a couple making US$250,000 is middle income is hard to fathom when the median household income in the US is just over US$70,000.
Most scholars and researchers who study financial aid have criticised the Biden plan as too generous and costly, and not targeted enough toward lower income former students. Conservatives also say the same, leading to a lawsuit that challenges the authority of the president to offer loan forgiveness on this scale without legislative approval.
It is important to note that a good portion of those who would be eligible for debt relief currently have sufficient earnings to pay their student debt. The federal spending would also ignore the many who have already diligently paid off their loans.
And then there is the inequality of providing this large tax-funded pay-out to those who willingly chose to enrol in a higher education institution and take on debt, a high percentage of whom never graduated. Those who did not go to college would be essentially subsidising those who did.
The legal challenge to Biden’s debt relief programme is now before the US Supreme Court. While there is a need for debt relief, it appears the optics of providing blanket debt relief so desired by much of the Democratic base trumped a more strategic approach. The proposal also negatively plays into the narrative of many moderates and conservatives of a free-spending liberal Biden administration which lacks regard for the growing national debt.
While waiting for a decision by an extremely conservative Supreme Court that champions archaic notions of states’ rights and that will likely overturn decades of precedent that allows universities to harness a measured approach to affirmative action, the Biden administration is also formulating an overhaul of the department’s income-driven federal loan repayment programme. In accordance with an announcement last week, undergraduate borrowers would have a cap in their repayment set at five per cent of their discretionary income; graduate student borrowers’ payments would be capped at 10 per cent for their discretionary income.
The story of blue and red states
In the most simple terms, there is a red and blue state divide when it comes to the role and importance of public institutions, including universities. There are also a handful of so-called purple states: states in which no one party has a significant majority of votes and which, for instance, might have a Democratic governor and a Republican majority in the state legislature.
While the Democrats picked up two additional governorships in the midterm elections, that did not substantially change the power dynamics between and among the states: the Republicans hold 28 out of 50 governorships and retain majorities in a similar number of state legislatures.
The vast majority of red states are rural and more homogenous in population with conservative values focused on limited government and low taxes; blue states, and the Democratic Party, are characterised by the concentration of their population in more liberal and diverse urban centres and increasingly liberal suburban areas.
Blue states tend to have higher educational attainment rates, including people with a bachelor degree. With some exceptions, they are also the hubs for technology and other growth economic sectors.
Most blue states, and their lawmakers, have a general sense of the value of public universities and colleges and are seeking paths to re-invest in them after the severe ebb of state funding before and during the Great Recession and the onset of the COVID pandemic.
In contrast, a Pew Research Center survey found that some 59% of Republicans feel that colleges and universities have a negative effect on American society, profess low esteem for professors and feel that they are influenced by political leftist activism.
Red state politicians see an advantage in attacking universities as reinforcing the ‘deep state’ and focusing on cultural issues revolving around race and gender fluidity debates.
To varying degrees, the Republican lawmakers have embraced many characteristics of right-wing neo-nationalism found in other parts of the world: meaning they are anti-immigrant, nativist and isolationist, prone to anti-science rhetoric and policies, seek ways to gerrymander and control elections and find subtle and sometimes overt ways to attack political opponents and gain greater control of public institutions, including universities and the judiciary.
At the same time, funding has generally improved for higher education in both red and blue states, in part because of the federal government’s massive infusion of pandemic relief funding directed to state governments and a generally improving economy, despite high inflation rates.
Blue and red and purple, state politics also find consensus on the important role of tertiary institutions in workforce development and regional economic development.
Attacks on higher education
Governors in many red states have sought paths to populate public university governing boards and university presidencies with conservative loyalists.
In Florida, for example, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, a presidential hopeful who now exceeds Trump in popularity among Republicans in recent polls, has repeatedly targeted universities, and schools in general, as proponents of critical race theory (CRT) and dogmatic enablers of LGBTQ rights.
In part based on a national legislative template offered by an activist conservative lobbying group, the Florida legislature passed a bill last May banning the teaching of CRT and restructuring tenure; another law allows students to record professors’ lectures as evidence of possible bias.
Apparent fear of political and funding retribution led the president of the University of Florida, its flagship state university, to initially ban faculty from testifying against a DeSantis-backed effort to pass legislation widely believed to limit the voting rights of minority groups who more generally vote Democratic.
DeSantis also recently appointed a Republican senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, as president of the University of Florida despite significant protests from faculty. It is an odd fit.
Florida has become an important battleground regarding issues of academic freedom and university autonomy, but similar legislation has been passed or introduced in Oklahoma, Mississippi, North Dakota, Texas and other states.
In Texas, the lieutenant governor voiced a common critique among conservatives regarding the flagship University of Texas campus in Austin, stating: “Tenured professors must not be able to hide behind the phrase ‘academic freedom’, and then proceed to poison the minds of our next generation…”
In Georgia, and despite widespread faculty protest, Republican Governor Brian Kemp appointed former two-term governor Sonny Perdue to lead the 26-institution University of Georgia system; its governing board then made it easier to fire tenured professors.
Seeing into the future
As we move into 2023, there are some signs of a more moderate political environment developing in the US, but also a probable gridlock in any meaningful policy-making at the federal level with the Republicans gaining their slim majority in the House of Representatives.
The ascending Republican leadership in the House remains fixated on retaining the old Trump political base and blocking any new initiatives from the Biden administration – whatever their merits.
Trump’s errant higher education policies, including yearly proposed massive cuts in federal funding for academic research, were largely averted by a consensus of both parties in Congress.
The largest residue from the Trump period of chaotic policy-making is the rhetorical attacks on higher education and the broader effort to cast science and scientists as tools of a vast liberal conspiracy of disinformation.
With Trump’s increased political and legal baggage, I think it unlikely for him, and his scorched earth policies, to return to the presidency. Without a clear agenda, or leader, and disarray in the Republican Party, much of Biden’s agenda for higher education is in place and will shape the year ahead.
This includes the recent US$1.7 trillion budget deal passed in late December and signed by Biden that includes a moderate but meaningful increase in funding to the National Science Foundation [NSF] and the National Institutes of Health [NIH].
Further bolstering federal funding for higher education, the recent CHIPS and Science Act will boost US microchip research and production and will funnel additional funding to academic researchers, helping to build generally positive collaborations between universities and the private high-tech sector that has fuelled economic growth.
These bi-partisan deals also allowed the federal government to operate into early 2023. But there is uncertainty about the future of the federal budget that, in a worse case scenario, could mean cuts to mandated programmes like social security and discretionary funding, like to the NSF and the NIH. Republicans have repeatedly used the arcane requirement for Congress to repeatedly increase the federal debt level, threatening to close down the government and growing political favour from the party’s obstructionist base. As of this writing, they are doing this again, calling for more than $130 billion in unidentified cuts to the federal budget. Brinkmanship aside, one assumes that a deal will be made in the next five months or so and the US will meet its debt obligations.
The economic fortunes of the US, and globally, will play a role in shaping domestic policy, along with the pending decisions by the Supreme Court on Biden’s debt relief scheme and the probable decision to end America’s brand of affirmative action at universities – although the use of race and ethnic preferences in university and college admissions is in reality practised by highly selective institutions that enrol only about 6% of all students.
As we move into the presidential race period, the red versus blue state dynamic, with political debates and news coverage often revolving around cultural issues that play well among Republican and many independent voters, will likely become even more heated. These are so-called ‘wedge’ issues that drive tribal political actors and voters.
While much of this discussion is on domestic policy, there remains the important question of the path forward for the international engagement of higher education institutions in the US, including international research collaborations between universities and between scholars and students.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s savage attack on Ukraine and increasing tension with China regarding not only trade but science and technological espionage have created what might be termed a new and emerging academic cold war.
How the US, and the world, navigates this relatively new environment, and its influence on what has become an extremely robust global science system, is not clear.
On the one hand, it is leading to increased isolation for universities and academics in certain parts of the world, particularly Russia but also in an increasingly autocratic China. On the other hand, it may lead to an even more robust relationship with the European Union and possibly key portions of the Southern Hemisphere.
In the end, and as this short synopsis of contemporary higher education policy and politics in the US shows, elections matter – at least in liberal democracies.
John Aubrey Douglass is research professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States.