Republicans Employ Education Weapons, Too

A couple of days ago I blasted President Obama for, in repugnant tradition, using “education” as a political weapon, invoking it to scare Americans into demanding increased taxes for “the rich.” House Speaker John Boehner, thankfully, did not abuse education similarly in his rebuttal. But his proposal for raising the debt ceiling illustrates just how weak the GOP’s commitment is to returning the federal government to its constitutional – and affordable – size. And I say this not because of the relative puniness of his proposed cuts, but what the proposal would do in education, the only area it specifically targets: increase funding for Pell Grants.

Now, I know what many people will say to this: Pell is a de facto entitlement; it has a big shortfall; and Boehner’s bill would offset the Pell increase by eliminating federal student loan repayment incentives and grad student interest subsidies. And do you just hate education, McCluskey, or poor people?

On the first points, yes to all of those, and the CBO even projects that over ten years Boehner’s bill would achieve some savings from his student-aid moves. But ten years is a long time, during which a lot of things – especially spending increases – could happen. And the seemingly forgotten fact of the matter is that we have a $14.3 trillion debt and are sooner or later going to need big, tough cuts. And though Pell Grants sound so nice – they give poor kids money to go to college! – they should be eliminated for several reasons well beyond  frightening fiscal reality:

  1. They are unconstitutional: None of the Federal government’s enumerated – and only – powers say anything about paying for college.
  2. They are inflationary: Maybe Pell Grants, because they target low-income students better than federal loans and tax-based aid, aren’t the biggest drivers of tuition inflation, but research suggests they are a driver, especially at private institutions. There is also good reason to believe that schools target their own aid dollars to other, better-off students when they can use taxpayer dough for low-income ones.
  3. They take money from real human beings – taxpayers – to make others rich: Okay, maybe not rich, but as higher ed advocates will quickly tell you, on average a person with a college degree will make roughly $1 million more over her lifetime than someone without one. There’s a lot of play in that number, but the point is generally correct: A degree helps to significantly increase earnings. How, then – even absent a mind-blowingly colossal debt – can we justify taking money from taxpayers, many of whom did not go to college, and just giving it away to others so that they can get a lot wealthier? At the very least Pell should be made into a federally backed loan program – recipients should at least have to return taxpayers’ “investment” – which Boehner could have put into his bill.

Republicans might not be as quick as Democrats to rattle education-tipped missiles, but they’re fully committed to keeping them in their arsenal.