This summer, in our College Guide issue, I noted an underappreciated and, to me, worrying trend in public opinion polls: that Republican voters were turning sharply against higher education. This was happening, not coincidentally, in the wake of an election in which non-college educated white voters rallied to a presidential candidate who returned the favor by saying “I love the poorly educated.”
But from the timing of this swing, and the fact that nothing of the kind was happening among Democratic voters, including less educated Democrats, I concluded that this trend was not some honest grassroots backlash against college. Rather, it was being manufactured by conservative media—specifically, by all those pieces about out of control political correctness on college campuses that Fox News and others were running last spring in order to avoid reporting on the endless failures and scandals and incompetence of the new Trump administration.
The danger of this trend, I warned, is that if it continued it would undermine efforts this magazine and other organizations have been championing for years to reform the higher education system. I labeled these efforts “pre-ideological” in that the needed reforms, such as various ways to bring down the cost of college for non-wealthy students, haven’t really been exclusively claimed by one party or another, so that there is still some hope for bipartisan agreement—as opposed to say, issues such as tax or healthcare reform, where there is virtually none.
Having sounded the alarm, I then pulled back and predicted that, in the end, Republicans wouldn’t succumb to the anti-higher ed hysteria being whipped up by their conservative media overlords. My reasoning was that GOP lawmakers aren’t blind to the value of higher education in their states and districts, understand the need for reform, and simply “aren’t going to want to sacrifice the possibility of shaping good policy just so Trump and Fox News can have a little more red meat to feed their followers.”
That’s the kind of prediction that can get one labeled a squish, as someone who just doesn’t “get” how ruthless the Repubs are. And as the GOP tax plan started to take shape this fall, it looked like I was being naive. The version that passed the House last month was full of spiteful provisions aimed squarely at the college sector, including effectively raising taxes on ramen-eating grad students. But those provisions were not in the Senate bill, and we’re now learning that they didn’t make it into the final conference measure, either.
The only punishing provision in the final bill directed exclusively at higher education is one I actually agree with and that this magazine called for last summer: taxing the fattest endowments of elite private colleges and universities. That provision isn’t perfect; it would be much better if it gave colleges with big endowments the opportunity to avoid the tax by spending more on financial aid for non-wealthy students. But that’s a tweak that can be made the next time Democrats control Congress.
I’m telling you this story in part just to report some good news about a tax bill about which there is precious little else positive to say. But I think it is also a good example of a couple of things we try to do here at the Washington Monthly. First, we aim to be our readers’ journalistic scouts on matters of politics and policy, exploring issues and ideas that are over the horizon and therefore not being talked about yet in the mainstream media. And second, we try to be as accurate as we possibly can. That means sounding the alarm loudly when necessary, but also not hyping, or hyperventilating over, the evidence we have. This style of reporting and writing isn’t for everybody. In fact, we know we could have a significantly bigger audience if we were more dogmatic, more willing to play to readers’ deepest fears. But that’s just not how we want to operate. We think the more subtle and measured way we do things produces stronger work, and better, more lasting results. And we’re happy to sacrifice a somewhat bigger audience for a more discerning one.
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