The Education Class Warfare of Governor Scott Walker

For the record: I’m not from Wisconsin, and I did not attend its world-class university, but I do like cheese. My credentials to engage in this debate are that I care deeply and passionately about access to higher education at both two- and four-year public colleges and universities because I believe in educational and economic opportunity for all. I am also, heaven help me, the parent of a college bound high school senior and a fierce defender of the liberal arts and humanities.

The facts: Presidential hopeful Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) recently proposed to cut $300M from the University of Wisconsin, including a 30% cut to the state’s excellent system of workforce-oriented community and technical colleges (WCTCS). He simultaneously attempted, but was thwarted, in changing the state’s education mission statement which has been in place for 100 years. He reasonably suggested adding the words “state’s workforce needs” to the original statement about “developing human resources to discover and disseminate knowledge.” But I’m deeply shaken by the effort to remove the following:

“Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

He tried to cut “improve the human condition” and “search for truth” from the state’s education charter. This from a man who, when asked on a UK press junket whether he believed in evolution, chose to “punt.”Wait, the plot thickens. In what has been called a media “gotcha” moment, it was revealed that Walker himself dropped out of college before graduation.

But I disagree with former DNC chair Gov. Howard Dean for implying that because Walker left Marquette University before completing his baccalaureate that he is perhaps unqualified for national office. That is not only elitist; it’s playing precisely into the political trap that Walker has appeared to set up to win social conservatives.

The fact that Walker left college for a job before graduating does not disqualify him to hold any political office. A four year college degree is not a requirement to engage in policy debates and have an opinion. Cutting funding to public universities at a time when student debt tops $1 trillion and our country must better compete in the global economic marketplace is patently absurd. The decline in state investment in public universities has exacerbated student debt. And, Walker is dead wrong by pitting the (majority) of Americans who do NOT hold a four year college degree against those who do, and those who seek one for themselves, their children and their grandchildren.

It’s Walker’s bullying and dishonest tactics that trouble me. Are we to understand them as a ploy to court Republican primary supporters? In a thoughtful Salon essay, writer and former conservative Edwin Lyngar says “The Tea Party thrives on blue-collar ‘common sense’ that is composed of a combination of ignorance, superstition and fear.” To burnish his conservative credentials, he seems to be trying to reignite the anti-intellectual class warfare – yes I said it – that reminds me of the worst of W’s eight year reign of error. After all, he didn’t just try to cut the public university’s budget; he tried to cut its mission.

Indeed, there are many concurrent and often uncomfortable truths about how our system of higher education is both broken and essential. There are multiple reasons why so many seek a college degree and getting a good job is at the top. But tuition has skyrocketed in both private and public institutions, making a four year degree out of reach for too many Americans. Without the parallel escalation of student debt, college attendance would have plummeted. Political scientist Jacob Hacker includes the student loan industry in his concept of “the Great Risk Shift…a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as by government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families.”

As prices have soared, there’s no evidence that quality has kept up. Accountability for student learning is opaque. Informed critics such as Yale professor William Deresiewicz articulates in his provocative book Excellent Sheep the depressing reality that many colleges, particularly the elite institutions on the dubious US News & World Report’s Top 100 list, reinforce class privilege rather than rescue those who seek the mobility that education is supposed to provide.

It is also true that the value of a college education has never been greater. Let us remember that the Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerbergs and yes, Scott Walkers of the world are rare exceptions – as well as white men of a certain generation. While personal stories about your nephew the barista who “wasted” thousands of dollars on a college degree may be believable and sticky, they do not change reality. En masse, those with college degrees have multiple advantages than those who do not, including but not limited to higher wages, greater job satisfaction, more lasting marriages and better health. Even during the Great Recession, the rate of unemployment and underemployment were consistently higher for those without college degrees. A college degree today is tantamount to an entry ticket to the middle class. I think Walker knows this: both of his sons are currently enrolled in college (one at Marquette, the other at University of Wisconsin/Madison).

As the parent of a 17 year-old weighing college options, estimating the investment in college relative to the reward of future wages is not an altogether crass discussion to have. But as I consider my son’s future, I want him to have a quality college education that can prepare him to both search for truth and find a good job. And I resent the political manipulation that tells me that they are mutually exclusive. Let me know your thoughts on the matter. And, donations to my son’s college fund are gratefully appreciated.