The idea that any American can achieve success with ambition and hard work has been a hallmark of American exceptionalism for decades, but since the Bush-era Great Recession, the so-called American dream has vanished. With Republicans giving corporate tax breaks to companies that outsource millions of American’s jobs and obstructing economic growth, the prospect of a living-wage job, home ownership, adequate healthcare, and a secure retirement have become a pipe-dream for all but the most optimistic Americans. In the not-so-distant past, a college education was a hedge against a life of subsistence existence and even low-income Americans had the opportunity to earn a degree and hope for financial stability in the near and distant future. Those days, like the American Dream, are disappearing and the result is leading to a two-caste system that favors the wealthy as federal scholarships are shrinking in relation to the cost of a college education leaving low-income Americans with limited opportunities for social mobility and a better life than their parents.
The Republican primary has revealed a troubling assault on higher education by Republicans who prefer investing in tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations instead of education, and it “reinforces class stratification” in favor of families in the top 25% of income earners. According to the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Anthony Carnevale, “The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege,” and based on recent comments from the leading Republican presidential hopefuls, they promise to continue the trend if they win the White House.
Rick Santorum made a ridiculous claim that colleges and universities are “indoctrination mills” and that President Obama was a snob for suggesting that all Americans deserve an opportunity to earn a college degree. Part of Santorum’s ideology is based on the assumption that professors are liberal proselytizers and that Americans are better served with their information being disseminated by Dark Ages wealthy clergy. Santorum has been super critical of public education that he called “big factories left over from the Industrial Revolution” and has argued to decrease federal and state roles in education. Mr. Santorum advocates homeschooling and he implied that it is better than public education because “it’s the parents responsibility to educate their children.” However, although Santorum is wealthy enough for his wife to stay at home and afford tutors, most Americans do not have that ability. The point is that Santorum does not value equal educational opportunities for all Americans.
Expecting support for education from a man who still asserts that global climate change is a hoax, and that evolution promotes atheism is an exercise in futility, but one would think that Willard “Mitt” Romney, the acclaimed businessman who knows how to put Americans back to work would have a different opinion about government investing in an educated workforce. Last week, in answer to a high-school senior’s question about what Romney would do about rising higher education costs, Romney said, “It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that,” and suggested the student “go to one that has a little lower price, and don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.” In other words; good luck.
Romney failed to talk about federal Pell Grants for families with income low enough to qualify for the federal aid because he supports a House Republican budget that cuts Pell grants by at least 25% or the variety of government loans that assist millions of Americans to earn college degrees. Willard also suggested finding a scholarship or join the military for a free education. Romney, unlike President Obama, did not mention calling on colleges and universities to hold down tuition increases or recommend considering a work-study program, because he is not interested in helping low-income Americans afford a higher education.
There are several reasons Republicans are opposed to higher education for all Americans, and they range from Paul Krugman’s assertion that Republicans prefer tax cuts to education to preserve upper-class prosperity, to the Republican’s anti-tax philosophy. The notion of Republicans pushing for the American political system to be controlled by the wealthiest Americans is certainly true, but there are other factors involved. Globalization has made it possible for corporations outsourcing American jobs to be able to, for example, hire 8,700 engineers in fifteen days in China so they are less dependent on a well-educated work force in America. Corporations located overseas draw on educated labor from all over the world taking advantage of other countries’ investment in education and maximize their wealth by avoiding taxes in America.
The growing educational stratification and lack of access to higher education is in no small part due to Pell Grants failing to keep up with rising college expense. In 1979-80, for example, Pell Grant Awards accounted for 77% of the cost of attending college for those who qualified, but in 2010-11, the figure dropped to 36% meaning fewer opportunities for lower-income Americans to earn a college education. Republicans like the thought of an uneducated populace, but they also like taking the savings from cutting education funding and handing it to the rich and corporations. In Florida, Governor Rick Scott announced a new budget that cuts $1.7 billion from public education and gives $1.6 billion in tax cuts to the rich and corporations. Scott follows other Republican governors in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and congressional Republicans’ lead in slashing education and social programs to give the savings to the wealthy. Republicans have revealed their priorities are enriching the wealthy at the expense of an educated populace and widening income inequality that is creating a nation of an ultra-wealthy few and a peasant class.
None of the Republican presidential hopefuls have given any signs they will help all Americans have an equal opportunity in education. Thomas B. Edsall makes a good argument that the Republican plan is to perpetuate the reproduction of privilege to favor upper-income students while restricting access to lower-income students, and Krugman implies Republican cuts to Pell Grants is building a caste society. Both are correct, but a bonus for Republicans is an uneducated population that lacks basic knowledge to make informed decisions with sound critical thinking abilities that higher education provides. In that sense, Santorum’s assertion that colleges and universities are indoctrination mills is a more believable excuse to cut education spending on a rudimentary level.
Despite the various rationalizations and explanations for Republicans’ drive to deny equal educational opportunities to Americans, the most plausible is sheer greed. Republicans have shown their tendency to cut any program or agency to give more tax breaks to the wealthy whether it is cutting Pell Grants, Medicare, or food stamps; they will slash any program to give more breaks to the rich and their corporations regardless the devastating effects on the rest of the population. However, no sane, thinking American expects any less from Republicans because they have no more concern for equal opportunity in education than they do for equal rights for women, gays, minorities, or the poor, and if they can keep the population ignorant in the process, then they perpetuate the privilege of the few at the expense of the many, and the many will never know it.