Jul 23, 2023 - Politics & Policy

The Republican war on colleges

Illustration of an elephant knocking over a column with its trunk and tusks.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the two GOP presidential frontrunners, have both promised a crackdown on colleges should they occupy the White House — a stark reflection of the right's growing skepticism of higher education.

Between the lines: Some Republican complaints about colleges are related to broader concern about "wokeness" and free speech. But others hint at deeper questions about the value of college, and how to ensure a degree comes with an appropriate economic return.

Driving the news: In a video posted on his website last week, Trump pledged to "fire the radical Left accreditors" and hire new ones "who will impose real standards on colleges."

  • Some of those standards would include "protecting free speech," "removing all Marxist diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucrats," and "implementing college entrance and exit exams to prove that students are actually learning and getting their money's worth."
  • Last month, DeSantis sued the Biden administration over the college accreditation system, alleging it's unconstitutional, Inside Higher Ed reports. Students who receive federal aid must attend an accredited college or university.

The big picture: Republicans' confidence in higher education has plummeted over the last several years.

  • A Gallup poll released earlier this month found that Americans' confidence in higher education has fallen to 36%, compared to 57% in 2015. The sharpest reported drop in confidence was among Republicans.
  • Only 19% of Republicans say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in higher education, compared to 56% who said the same eight years ago. Among Democrats, 59% expressed confidence, a 9-point decline from 2015.
  • In 2017 Gallup polling probing the reasons behind low confidence, the most frequent answer given by Republicans was that colleges are too liberal or political.

Why it matters: Higher education is poised to become a major motivating factor in the 2024 presidential election.

  • Democrats were furious last month after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action as well as President Biden's original student loan forgiveness plan.

What we're watching: Much of the noise being made by Republicans is political at heart. But right-leaning think tanks — and even some policymakers — are focused on making colleges more accountable for students' economic outcomes.

  • Accreditation reforms could be where these two goals intersect.

Republicans "have historically thought of education as a training ground for employment," said Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • "I think they see this as a moment to put in place some accountability that they've long been in favor of but seemed to lack the political motivation to push on," she added.
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