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Explain This

The GOP Wants to Keep America Stupid

The war on higher education being waged by Betsy DeVos and Republicans has one overall goal: to keep the lower and middle classes uneducated, underemployed, and perpetually in debt.

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The GOP has declared war on higher education. Not for everyone, mind you. Just for everyone that isn’t rich.

For a long time, on a lot of fronts, the GOP has tried to dismantle K-12 public education. Indeed, the secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has often been on the forefront of those efforts. In Michigan, she backed attempts to massively increase the number of charter schools and pushed for vouchers, in which public education dollars are given to parents to use in private schools, including religious ones. Up until now, however, higher education has remained a bit more insulated from the push to privatize, deregulate, and decrease access. All that changed when Donald Trump got elected, Betsy DeVos got a national platform, and the House and Senate GOP made a commitment to slash taxes on the rich while hurting everyone else.

There have been so many depressing developments that it is tough to know where to start, but maybe the best place is DeVos’s devotion to for-profit colleges. For-profit schools target veterans and low-income people, often have high tuition rates, and often have a bad habit of lying about things like placement rates.

Under Obama, the Department of Education worked hard to get some of the worst of those colleges—such as Corinthians and ITT—shut down and then told former students of those colleges how they could obtain relief from their loan debt. Under Trump and DeVos, though, everything has changed.

First, DeVos installed Julian Schmoke Jr. as the head of the division that investigates higher-education fraud. That’s all well and good, except that Schmoke was a dean at DeVry University, a for-profit college that had to cough up $100 million in 2016 to resolve a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit in which it was alleged that they lied to students about their employment prospects.

Next, she set about trashing several Obama-era rules that would have provided greater protection and relief for students that had attended for-profit colleges. She stopped the “gainful employment” rule from taking effect. That rule would have cut off funding to for-profit colleges if they smothered students with loans but didn’t adequately prepare those students for meaningful employment.

Finally, DeVos stopped granting debt relief—the practice of essentially “writing off” the federal loans for students that attended places like Corinthians. Under Obama, the government covered $650 million in loans to over 30,000 former Corinthians and ITT students. Under Trump? Zero. Literally zero.

So, for-profit schools will keep thriving. And they will continue to be an option for low- and middle-income students, but it will be an option that saddles them with massive debt and provides them with little to no job prospects.  

While DeVos is pumping up for-profit private colleges, the GOP is working hard to decrease access to graduate school for people that aren’t rich. The House tax bill proposes to remove the “qualified tuition reduction” exemption. Right now, if you attend graduate school, particularly for a Ph.D, you likely get your tuition waived. You pay taxes on anything you earn, such as a teaching stipend, but you don’t pay taxes on that tuition waiver.

In practical terms, what this means is that a student who is living on something like $25,000 will get taxed on that $25,000 plus their waived tuition, which can run anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 per year. That results in an unbelievable tax increase for graduate students—as high as a 400% hike. That would put graduate education out of reach for many students. It doesn’t, however, put graduate education out of reach for rich students who can afford the tax hit or just pay full tuition. But the brain drain will be awful. More to the point, it’s disheartening just how blatant it is: it isn’t about devaluing graduate-level higher education as such. It’s about hurting people that aren’t rich. To be completely fair, the Senate version of the tax bill doesn’t include this provision, but that is no guarantee it doesn’t make it into the final bill. Hoping that the Senate will save us is a losing game.

Another way in which the GOP proposes to undercut the ability of low-income students to attend school is a new bill that would require students who do not finish their program of study to repay their Pell Grants. Pell Grants go to low-income students, and are often used at community colleges. However, there are a lot of reasons that low-income students can’t finish programs of study. Pell Grant recipients skew more female, more first-generation college students, and less white than non-recipients. They have a far higher rate of single parenthood than non-recipients. They’re overwhelmingly already financially independent from their family.

Because of these factors, Pell Grant recipients have a number of reasons they might need to leave school. They may leave school because they end up needing to care for a family member. They may leave school because, even with the Pell Grant, they don’t have enough money to continue. They may leave school because they have to relocate. If any of those things happen, their Pell Grant converts to a loan they must repay. Now, they’re carrying debt and are even less likely to be able to return to school and complete their program.

The representative that introduced the bill, Francis Rooney, says that this measure will motivate students to graduate and enter to the work force. What this ignores is that, given that many of these students are already financially independent of their parents, they’re actually already in the work force. Going to college with the assistance of the Pell Grant gives them a shot at a better job, but this bill would take that away.

As this plays out, it is eerily parallel to the ways in which the GOP has worked to restrict reproductive freedoms. They’ve never succeeded in passing an outright ban on abortion, but they’ve made it harder and harder to get one, particularly if you don’t have money. But if you do, you can easily deal with waiting periods and multiple trips to the doctor or traveling to another state. Just as the pathway to abortion remains open for the rich, the pathway to higher education will remain open only to the rich if these measures all take hold.

We’re looking at a dystopian future where the only schools that will be in reach for most of us will be largely unregulated for-profit schools, and we’ll have massive debt and few job prospects if we attend those schools. And that’s exactly the way the GOP wants it.

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