As students arrive on campus this fall, political controversies such as speaker disinvitations, protests, riots, and professor bias will come to dominate conservative media. But while rallies and far-right guest speakers can certainly stir up controversy, conservative students should set aside those tactics. Instead they should reach out to politically liberal and neutral college students by offering conservative solutions to the problem that concerns them the most: high tuition.
There are plenty of students open to persuasion on this subject. Last year, the University of California, Los Angeles released a study on the political viewpoints of college freshman and found that 35 percent identify as liberal or far-left, and 22 percent identify as conservative or far-right. That difference in itself is not encouraging for Republicans, but it’s also true that more new students identified as neutral (42 percent) than with either political extreme. Given that young people as a whole have fairly liberal social attitudes, it makes sense to introduce them to a conservatism of ideas that will practically improve their lives.
The image of the Bernie Sanders-loving Millennial college student is an accurate one—after all, more Millennials voted for the democratic socialist senator in the 2016 primaries than for Trump and Clinton combined. But that’s because Sanders focused more on issues that matter to them, like tuition and the burden of student loans, than the other candidates—Hillary’s asking for an emoji-driven explanation of student loan debt notwithstanding. The Vermont senator’s solutions might be foolhardy—“free” college would cost over $800 billion and end up benefiting wealthy families the most—but his political savvy is undeniable.
It isn’t enough for conservatives to focus on the flaws of Sanders’ proposals. Pointing them out does not address the problems that led young people to support Sanders in the first place.
College tuition has risen almost 200 percent over the past 20 years, nearly four times faster than inflation. Democrats blame the rise in tuition on lower funding from state governments, which theoretically forces universities to rely on higher tuition to raise revenue. However, lower state funding is not the cause of higher tuition. The American Enterprise Institute found that a dollar less in state government funding for higher education translated to only five cents higher tuition. This shows that colleges respond to lower state-level subsidies by decreasing spending on research and administration, not by raising tuition.
However, the expansion of federal subsidies for student loans has been a leading cause of tuition increases. In a comprehensive 2017 study, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 60 percent of federal government student loan subsidies end up raising tuition. In other words, an additional dollar of federal government student loan subsidies means 60 cents higher tuition and only 40 cents benefits to students.
Further, the money that universities get from that higher tuition has mostly been wasted on hiring administrators—college employees that neither conduct research nor teach courses. Between 1993 and 2009, administrative spending at colleges rose by 60 percent, 10 times as much as faculty spending. This means that colleges have been using higher tuition to expand school bureaucracy, not to increase quality of education. If conservative student activists really want to make the case for small government, there’s no better way than by showing how the federal student loan subsidy program does more to enrich school administrations than help students.
Fortunately, there’s an excellent model of how to rein in college tuition costs. Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels became president of Purdue University in 2013. Since then, he has frozen tuition for both in-state and out-of-state attendees, which has been extremely popular: Purdue has seen a 56 percent increase in applications since that change. Daniels made this tuition freeze possible by slashing the university’s operating budget and pioneering the “Degree in 3” program, which allows students to take a heavy course load and graduate in three years, saving tens of thousands of dollars. The former Indiana governor has also expanded options for online and technical education, as well as interest-free financial aid.
Clearly, young people respond well to these ideas. Conservative proposals to improve higher education are popular when implemented, but GOP leaders do not place them center stage, instead choosing to focus on taxes and immigration. Conversely, leading contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2020, such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have long put the cost of higher education at the center of their political agendas. To a casual observer, the Republican Party does not seem interested in addressing the student loan crisis.
The GOP can’t win over college students if these students don’t know about its solutions to their problems. Educating the rest of the student body on policies to reduce tuition rates should be the top priority of campus conservatives.
Alex Muresianu is a Young Voices contributor studying economics at Tufts University. His writing has appeared in The Federalist and the Washington Examiner. He can be found on Twitter @ahardtospell.