Last week I wrote about the “college conundrum” and the opportunity it presents for conservatives. The basic argument: college is simultaneously more expensive, less valuable, and more important than ever before. What families need is a more robust set of postsecondary options to choose from, meaning we should focus reform energy on the supply-side of higher education. Lowering barriers to entry and leveling the playing field can free entrepreneurs to build offerings that better suit students’ needs.
That shouldn’t be too hard, right? After all, the K-12 reform movement has made serious inroads on reforms like charter schooling, digital learning, and the like, thanks in large part to support from Republican policymakers at the state and federal level. Won’t the effort to change higher ed play out the same way?
Not exactly. The politics of higher education policy are actually less hospitable to reform than those in K-12. Some argue that partisan polarization is to blame, which is typically code for “the Democrats want to change things but Republicans won’t let them.” To others, resistance to reform is the work of an all-powerful “higher education lobby” that uses money and influence to thwart well-intentioned efforts to improve the system.
These accounts aren’t wrong so much as they’re incomplete. The root of the problem is both more mundane and more problematic than partisanship or special interests: it’s our geographic system of representation. Because every congressional district benefits from federal student aid, most legislators have little incentive to do anything that could put their slice at risk.
Everybody’s got colleges, and colleges love federal money
I once had a meeting with a whip-smart Republican congressman to discuss federal financial aid reform. As I was ushered into his office, one of his policy advisors was busily dialing up a speakerphone. On the other end of the line? The president of the local private college. As the district’s most important constituent on higher education policy, leaving him out of this policy discussion would have been politically unwise.
The thing is, every member might as well have a college president on speed dial. Using the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, I tallied the number of two and four-year colleges in each congressional district that participate in federal student aid programs (prior to the 2012 redistricting). In 2011-2012, every single district had at least one college within its boundaries, and the median district had 11. Fully 387 districts—more than enough for a congressional majority—had more than five colleges. (These numbers don’t even count the 2,000 less-than two-year colleges.)
Because student aid vouchers go directly to students rather than colleges, we don’t tend to think about these programs as distributive policies like farm subsidies or infrastructure spending. But that’s largely semantics. Aid money eventually winds up in college coffers just the same. And colleges happen to be quite equitably distributed across every single congressional district in the country, meaning every constituency benefits from the status quo.
And benefit they do. If you add up all of the Pell Grant and federal student loan money that went to undergraduates at these colleges, you find that the median congressional district received more than $167 million in aid in 2011-2012. In 160 congressional districts (including DC), colleges received $200 million or more. And that doesn’t count the aid money that goes to graduate students or to less-than two-year institutions.
(For context, if we simply divide the $13.8 billion spent in 2013 on the main federal program in K-12 education (Title I funding for disadvantaged students) by the number of congressional districts (including DC), you get about $31.7 million per district.)
Colleges need this money to survive. A 2013 paper by financial aid guru Mark Kantrowitz found that “overall, almost two-thirds of institutional revenue across all types of colleges comes from federal student aid.” At public four-year colleges, 77 percent of tuition revenue came from federal student aid; at for-profit four-years, it is 73 percent. Though private nonprofits were somewhat less reliant on federal aid money (42 percent), most would not survive without it.
Colleges = jobs
Tampering with this gravy train could threaten entire local economies. Colleges are like other large employers in that they often generate small economies all on their own. They employ hundreds (and often thousands) of people on their campuses and create plenty of opportunity for other small businesses.
Take a mid-size city like Memphis, home to Fortune 1,000 companies like FedEx, International Paper, Autozone, and ServiceMaster. FedEx is by far the largest employer, with 11,000 people at its World Hub in Memphis (and 31,000 overall in the Memphis area). Together, the 23 two- and four-year colleges in Tennessee’s 9th Congressional district employ nearly 5,800 full-time staff—as many people as International Paper, Autozone, and ServiceMaster combined. Now imagine the thousands of small college towns outside of American cities. That’s a lot of livelihoods–and towns–tied to federal student aid programs.
We’ve all seen the campaign ads that pillory an incumbent for letting the local factory close on their watch. What risk-averse member of Congress wants to be on the receiving end of the one with the overgrown college green and the boarded up library?
Why don’t the same rules apply to K-12 school reform?
All of this adds up to a scenario where there’s little incentive to mess with the status quo. But shouldn’t the same be true of K-12? Every congressional district has public schools, and those schools receive federal subsidies.
The politics of federal K-12 policy are different for two main reasons. First, federal spending on public K-12 schools is smaller, in both a proportional and an absolute sense, than the money spent on student grants and loans. Title I spending equaled about $13.8 billion in 2013; federal loans, grants, and work-study added up to $144 billion that year. The financial stakes are higher in higher ed.
Second, education policy debates in K-12 have tended to map onto traditional conflicts between conservatives and public sector unions, making Republicans a natural ally. But this fault line is not nearly as prominent in higher education, in part because the private sector has always played a large role in the system and because federal aid has always been voucherized. Both of these are Republican ideas.
In practice, this means that higher education reform tends to lack natural champions on Capitol Hill. Republicans like the voucher system and private sector involvement, while Democrats like the generous subsidies. In fact, Republicans in Congress have often bristled at calls for change (even those offered by their own party), casting reforms as federal overreach into a seemingly private market.
What does it all mean?
Three takeaways stand out. First, haranguing Washington’s “higher education lobby” is all fine and good, but it will only get reformers so far. These interest groups are not only powerful because they are well-resourced and well-connected, but because the realities of geographic representation give them a structural advantage. Much of what looks like “lobbying power” is plain old constituency influence. Even if reformers shamed the trade associations into submission, they would still have colleges in every district to contend with, most of which want to protect the status quo.
Second, because of these parochial politics, policy entrepreneurship is more likely to come from leaders with a national or statewide vantage point—the President and members of the Senate—than from those with narrower constituencies. The Obama and Bush administrations have both called for greater accountability in higher education, but their ideas that have gotten little traction in congress. And while there has been a flurry of activity in the Senate, with Republicans Mike Lee (UT) and Marco Rubio (FL) and Democrats Ron Wyden (OR), Brian Schatz (HI) and Chris Murphy (CT) pushing for various reforms to accreditation, federal data collection, and accountability, the House has been more circumspect. Look for that pattern to continue.
Finally, it’s possible that trends in public opinion will shake up these politics. While Americans still believe a college education is necessary, they are increasingly skeptical that it’s worth the money. If the public turns on colleges, legislators will have more to gain from supporting higher education reform. Ironically, continued protection of an unsustainable status quo in the short-term may only raise the long-term prospects for change. The politics of education change slowly, but they do change eventually.