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Politics

Why do so many Republicans hate college?

Catherine Rampell on

TEMPE, Ariz. -- More than ever, higher education has become critical to snagging a stable job, moving up the income ladder and succeeding in the global economy.

Yet more than ever, higher education has also become a political football and object of derision.

Here in Arizona, Republican politicians clearly view beating up on colleges as a way to prove their conservative bona fides. Attorney General Mark Brnovich recently sued the board of regents of Arizona's public universities, which under state law is technically his client. Brnovich complains that tuition is too high to meet the state's constitutional requirement that colleges be "as nearly free as possible."

The suit unfortunately leaves out the fact that Arizona has cut state funding per student by 41 percent since 2008, second only to Louisiana in higher-ed disinvestment. Which suggests that if anyone is violating the constitution, it's state lawmakers, not schools.

"It's a political distraction motivated by something other than an actual interest in tuition-paying students," Arizona State University President Michael Crow told me. "It's motivated by the political aspirations of the person that filed the suit."

Arizona colleges are hardly the only institutions in the culture-war crosshairs.

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At a dinner in New York last month with about a dozen college presidents, other officials described similar showdowns with peacocking, publicity-stunting politicians.

A group of Louisiana legislators recently threatened to further slash public higher-ed appropriations -- already down 43 percent per student since 2008 -- if any student football players took a knee during the national anthem, according to Louisiana State University President F. King Alexander. (The threat was withdrawn after Alexander reminded lawmakers that LSU players traditionally remain in the locker room during the anthem.)

In Iowa, a state senator introduced a bill requiring ideological litmus tests for faculty hiring.

When I asked whether they believed provisions of the Trump tax bill targeting colleges were punitive, nearly every president at the dinner answered yes.

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