GOP platform attacks higher education

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Delegates to the Republican National Convention approved a platform that would be "regressive and patently unfair" to students, says AFT vice president Phillip H. Smith, president of the United University Professions at the State University of New York. Republicans would end federal direct student loans, shift money into the coffers of banks in the form of subsidies and shrink the Pell Grant program serving lower-income students.

In contrast, the Democratic Party platform, released Sept. 4, shows a continuation of the Obama administrations agenda—focusing on financial aid programs to allow more low- and middle-income students to get the support they need to attend and stay in college, and on programs that will help the nation increase the percentage of citizens holding college degrees.

The Republican policy document urges officials to crack down on public institutions for being "zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the Left." "Ideological bias is deeply entrenched with the current university system," it claims, warning that trustees of state institutions have a responsibility to the public to ensure that public dollars not be used for "political indoctrination." Elsewhere, the platform reiterates Republican opposition to the Dream Act, which provides a way for undocumented students brought here as young children to go to college and work toward citizenship.

The Republican platform next turns to what in higher education is uppermost in Americans' minds—college costs and recent graduates' struggles to repay student loans while facing prospects of unemployment or underemployment. One answer from the Republicans: de-emphasize traditional higher education and, for the masses, create programs directly related to job opportunities. "New systems of learning are needed to compete with traditional four-year colleges: expanded community colleges and technical institutions, private training schools, online universities, life-long learning, and work-based learning in the private sector."

The Republicans also want to liberate federal dollars that, under the Obama administration, have gone to providing direct loans to middle-class students and more grants to low-income students. In the language of the platform statement: "The federal government should not be in the business of originating student loans; however, it should serve as an insurance guarantor for the private sector as they offer loans to students." With no risk for the banks and a reprise of government subsidies to the banks to make the loans, that's a return to big, Bush-era profits for financial institutions on the backs of working families.

"The Republicans' policies on higher education would clearly reduce educational opportunities for students from poor and middle-income families," said UUP's Smith. "America's middle class is shrinking because economic hardship is pushing more families into lower income levels," Smith added. "Now is not the time to cut Pell Grants and raise student loan costs. Taking those steps would limit students' chances for higher education and economic advancement, and would be regressive as well as patently unfair."

See the AFL-CIO’s side-by-side comparisons of the party platforms. [Barbara McKenna, political party platforms]

September 5, 2012