Rand Paul, the Tuition Crisis, and Winning Young Voters

I attended Rand Paul’s official launch to his Iowa campaign last Friday at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, my alma mater. Much of it went as you’d expect for a Paul event. There was a youthful, high-energy crowd. The speech was filled with applause lines about liberty, privacy & civil rights that prompted spontaneous chants of “President Paul!” But what struck me was that in addition to general statements of principal you’d find at any political speech the Senator made a startling number of concrete proposals. Among those, one stood out to me as a game changer in courting America’s youth and something that should have every GOP hopeful taking notes. I’m talking about his proposal to make the entirety of college tuition tax deductible over the working life of an individual (e.g. not just in the year incurred, when most college kids have little taxable income to offset).

[mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ] said that if we want young voters to get off their couches and vote for a Republican we have to give them reason. He’s exactly right. Part of that, as he pointed out, is making the case that taxes and regulations eliminate jobs or drive them overseas, and that these are the jobs that college graduates hope to obtain. But the other half is addressing the chains hanging invisibly around the neck of every middle class American college kid like around Jacob Marley’s ghost. These are chains created by the runaway growth in college tuition & the student debt crisis it has created.

The real, inflation adjusted cost of a college education has grown by well over 400% since my parents were in college (the 70’s). By the time my son is in college (The 30’s) it’s likely to at least double again. Meanwhile, by every objective testing metric students actually learn less today than in the past despite (or perhaps because of) grossly inflated prices. It is clear that University professors and administrators have grown rich off the back of middle class parents and students that make much less money than they do (without, one might add, academic holidays, flexible hours, & sabbaticals). Nice work if you can get it.

College administrators, especially, have gorged themselves at the trough of tuition price gouging. While most professors must content themselves to low six figures (at least outside of professional schools), top administrators can break seven figures. Meanwhile, the number of administrators has exploded & now, preposterously, education bureaucrats outnumber professors on University campuses.

This should be a huge political issue, not just for college kids but also for their parents. Yet Republicans have largely ceded the field to Democrats when it comes to the cost of college. This has left voters to only hear the Democrats’ approach of throwing more money at the very same University administrators that have greedily vacuumed all previous federal tuition programs while doubling down on tuition hikes. This is particularly perverse since it’s the availability of unlimited federal subsidies in the form of federal student loans and other programs that have allowed colleges to raise their prices far above what middle-class families can plausibly save for their children’s education.

Rand Paul should be commended for offering a tax cutting approach to help alleviate the problem. But beyond the specifics of the Senator’s proposal, the more important point is that he’s talking about the issue at all and putting forth ideas to address it. This should be an invitation for other Republicans to talk about it at is well and start a robust discussion about conservative ways to address the tuition crisis.

Off the top of my head, how about we remove the distorted incentives of federally subsidized student loans by requiring Universities to reimburse taxpayers when their former students default? Make it a condition of accepting Uncle Sam’s tax dollars. Perhaps administrators will be less likely to jack up tuition unsustainably if they know they’re on the hook when it turns out their education was not worth the price. In any other context a service provider is financially liable when they commit malpractice. Why should Universities be specially privileged?

Perhaps universities that take taxpayer dollars should be required to keep tuition inflation at or below the level of overall inflation. Some conservatives might say that’s interfering with the market, but we’re already interfering by injecting taxpayer money to begin with. If colleges don’t want to take our money they can rely on the private loan market to fund their students’ education. Since private lenders have something called underwriting, I doubt many colleges will walk away from the government trough.

Maybe you have a better idea? The point is that Republicans should be talking about this issue. It is a real problem, with the added bonus that liberal academics are the villains of the story. The hypocrisy is delicious. The same people that scold of the rest of society about inequality are getting richer by exploiting their comparatively poor and powerless students. Indeed by strip mining their students’ and their students’ parents’ life savings and leaving them in crippling debt, self-righteous academics have probably done more to advance inequality in this country than all the other ills they point their fingers at.

Kudos to Rand Paul for making the tuition crisis a Presidential campaign issue. Let’s hope other candidates have the courage to offer their own concrete solutions. Let’s have a debate in the GOP primaries and make this issue our own. Let’s give young people a reason to get off their couches.