Resisting the Democratic Agenda on Higher Education: A Hill Worth Dying On by Joseph Prudhomme

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I just returned from a panel discussion in San Francisco on the Republican Party in the era of President Donald Trump. A seasoned colleague on the panel mentioned that the Democratic Party increasingly sees the New York governor Andrew Cuomo as the torchbearer of progressive reform, a political maestro in the spirit of Bernie Sanders—yet a salable Sanders, a nimble politico unburdened with hoary age, a socialist self-identity, and a checkered past (of honeymoons in Communist Russia and rape fantasy porn fiction). Cuomo, my colleague averred, is a younger and fresher champion of the policy perspectives espoused by the Warren-Sanders wing of the Democratic establishment.

A core of the appeal of Cuomo is the New York policy on higher education he shepherded through the state assembly: free college education for all, an agenda the national Democratic party hopes to adopt across the country. Sounds great, right? Not so fast. There may well be genuine downsides to this new policy: quality could soon be sacrificed as the system becomes bloated, regulations could prove excessive, and the taxes needed to support the program could prove detrimental in a myriad of ways. These are each worthwhile questions and deserve our serious and careful review.

However, I hold what I believe to be a sufficiently damning critique on its own, a criticism that becomes apparent once the fine print of the New York statute bubbles to the forefront: this government give-away is only for students attending not merely in-state colleges and universities (a sensible proviso since the tax burden is borne only by New Yorkers) but for those attending a state college or university: no in-state private college or university is supported by the Governor’s vaunted legislative victory.  

This will cause a wave of destruction of small denominational colleges who simply will no longer be able to compete in a crowded higher education marketplace.  It can only lead to a tremendous “crowding out” (a term economists use to refer to state funding displacing private capital). Indeed, crowding out is precisely what happened in the United Kingdom and on the European continent. There are no longer any small denominational colleges in these regions—they are impossible to run in light of state-funded secular education.

A string of corpses will litter the New York landscape in the wake of Cuomo’s legislation. For how can Hilbert College, Canisius College or Iona College (all Catholic), or Davis College (non-denominational Christian), or Concordia College (Lutheran) survive Cuomo’s tidal wave of undercutting competition, his brutal battery of what trade economists call unfair dumping?  Many simply can’t. All will struggle.

I do not know whether the end result on denominational colleges was intended —although I would not put it past the Democratic party which labored for the bill, given the stentorian secular voices in the party’s political base. But whether intentional or not, the net result is the same: a government war on religious higher education.

A simple solution to this egregious problem is voucherizing any subsidized higher education program.  Students could receive a grant (equal to the average cost of in-state tuition) and they could apply this amount to attend any accredited in-state college of their choice. This, in fact, was precisely what was good enough for the Greatest Generation through the much-celebrated GI Bill. I hazard to say, it should be good enough for us, too. Furthermore, such a policy would leave unscathed America’s rich ecosystem of denominationally grounded college education.  At least, common sense would seem to say so.   

But reality is a bitter mistress, and common sense her hapless victim far too often.  It is just very hard to stop the government from giving people “freebies.” And the Left is culturally and politically ascendant (sensing blood in the water from a weakened president, and seeing a rapidly diversifying and secularizing society erode core foundations of the Grand Old Party); a common sense voucher program might no longer carry the day—given the identification of vouchers with the now reviled Religious Right, and a lack of concern for religion skyrocketing among core components of the Democratic political establishment.

My common sense proposal, therefore, may well prove to be a last stand, indeed.

The Democratic party’s educational policy, however, is just so plainly wrong–and a voucherized alterative just so plainly right—that I am led merely to proclaim in the words of a great man who inspired the founding of so many now-beleaguered, regional liberal arts colleges:

“here I stand; I can do no other.”

Joseph Prud’homme is a professor at Washington College, and founder of the school’s Institute for the Study of Religion, Politics, and Culture. He lives with his wife and family in Easton, Maryland. 

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