US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

On Friday, President Barack Obama traveled to Tennessee to announce a new policy initiative: free tuition for two years of community college. The policy came with caveats, which include maintaining a 2.5 GPA and at least half-time enrollment. It also bore some Obama trademarks. In a nod to bipartisanship, he traveled to the state with three Tennessee Republicans and insisted that “opening the doors of higher education shouldn’t be a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. It’s an American issue.” He also placed the narrow policy into a much broader vision of universal college education for all Americans.

Yet while Obama’s proposal is meant to demonstrate the benefits of Democratic governance, it provides Republicans a prime opportunity to model an alternative approach. Congressional Republicans will likely quash Obama’s program, arguing that state-level initiatives like the one in Tennessee are the ideal way to expand college opportunities for lower-income students. And with Republicans controlling a majority of state legislatures and 31 governorships, they can show whether a more localized alternative works.

That states have a role in education is hardly controversial. All 50 states have provisions in their constitutions for some form of public education. The question is how much education the states should fund. Over the past several years the answer has appeared to be “not very much,” as public universities have seen their budgets slashed and tuitions hiked.

But increased state funding for community colleges and public universities is the ideal conservative issue in the Age of Obama. Here’s why.

1) Education is the GOP’s inequality program. Republicans oppose a number of social programs because they view them as a handout, rather than a hand up. But education is different. Contrary to arguments that free tuition means students don’t have “skin in the game,” post-secondary education requires work in order to earn a degree or qualification. Learning is the buy-in.

And there’s a real return on investment. Over the past several decades the U.S. has shifted from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy. In the 1950s, 60 percent of American jobs required unskilled labor, allowing workers without a college education to stay out of poverty, and perhaps even to reach the middle class. That’s no longer the case. By 1997, only 15 percent of American jobs were unskilled. Postsecondary education makes a real difference in both employment and earnings, even with a two-year degree. And a two-year degree program can lead to a four-year degree program, which leads to even higher earnings. Those earnings, both in the taxes they generate and the spending they allow, help grow the economy.

To be clear, this is not a panacea. Those unskilled jobs in mid-century America often came with strong union protections and a living wage. An associate’s degree today often leads to gray-collar work: low-wage service sector work with little job security. And as we’ve seen over the last several years, structural unemployment is a real problem. People can’t get jobs that don’t exist. Education then is not a solution to all economic ills, but it can pull people out of poverty and perhaps open the door to future opportunities. And it is embodies precisely the sort of work ethic and market-driven redistribution that conservatives champion.

2) It offers a governing alternative to obstructionism. Republicans don’t need to abandon obstructionism — it seems to have worked pretty well for them so far. But for those in the party who would like to showcase positive conservative policies, a plan to expand opportunities for higher education is a good starting point. It addresses at least part of a pressing problem — the high cost of college and the restrictions that places on educational attainment — and shows how Republicans in power can foster the civil society they believe is the necessary counterpart to smaller government.

To make this case, however, they will have to ease up on “taxed enough already” side of things. That's a tough sell, to be sure, as the GOP seems to grow more dogmatically anti-tax every year, but it's a necessary one if states are going to have the resources to properly fund higher education. Free or lower-cost tuition is going to cost taxpayers money, absolutely. But what are taxes for if not to create the opportunities citizens need to thrive?

3) It’s a test-case for federalism. Republicans don’t like that Obama’s policy would expand the federal government’s role in higher education, not only by increasing federal spending but also by setting federal standards community colleges would have to meet to qualify for funds. If they don’t want the federal government to step in, though, Republicans have to demonstrate that the states are capable of – and committed to – improving access. Federal intervention is often the result of states failing to improve social and economic conditions. Here’s the GOP’s chance to show states can provide more educational opportunities without federal help.

It’s possible that such a state-based system could fail. Underfunded, poorly administered or unequally developed, it could instead make the case for a federal program. But given the GOP’s desire to offer a positive alternative to Obama’s policies and its overwhelming control over state governments, now is the time to put the party’s ideological commitments to the test, and find out whether federalism is a workable philosophy in modern America.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report