Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-KY) talks with a reporter after a vote in the Capitol, May 21, 2014.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

The return of the ‘shop around’ higher-ed plan

Two years ago, there probably wasn’t too much Republicans could do to win over younger voters, who tend to be more progressive than other generations, but Mitt Romney certainly didn’t help matters with his education platform.
 
As the GOP’s presidential nominee told voters in 2012, young people who can’t afford to go to the college of their choice should simply “shop around” for some other, cheaper institution: “I know it is very tempting as a politician to go out and say, ‘You know what, I’ll just give you some money. The government’s just going to give you some money and pay back your loans for you.’ I’m not going to tell you something that’s not the truth.”
 
In this scenario, young people would be on their own. If a student comes from a wealthy family, he or she would have the resources to pay for higher ed. If not, well, perhaps the student should have picked wealthier parents, because a Romney administration wouldn’t help with Pell Grants or student loans.
 
President Obama won the youth vote by 23 points.
 
Two years later, the party’s position doesn’t seem to have changed much. Amanda Terkel reported yesterday:
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemed to have little sympathy for students who have accumulated massive amounts of student debt during a town hall with constituents last week. Instead of looking to the government to forgive their debt, he said, they should start looking at schools that are cheaper. […]
 
“I think the best short-term solution is for parents to be very cost-conscious in shopping around for higher education alternatives. Not everybody needs to go to Yale. I don’t know about you guys, but I went to a regular ol’ Kentucky college. And some people would say I’ve done okay.”
He added, “There are a lot of low-cost options that I hope more and more kids will take advantage of.”
 
We are, in other words, back to the “shop around” plan.
 
At a certain level, I can imagine some folks finding this argument persuasive. Plenty of Americans from working-class families go to state schools, get an education, get a job, and turn out just fine. Maybe, the argument goes, it’s not up to government to give these young people a hand.
 
The problem is, it’s not that simple. For one thing, the costs of higher education – undergrad and post-grad – have grown at a ridiculous pace in recent years. Even tuition at public, state universities is too much for many families, creating an education landscape in which “low-cost options” aren’t really options at all.
 
For another, there’s an inherent problem with a system that gives up on meritocracy altogether.
 
Imagine a hard-working teenager who’s had a lot of success in high school. She applies to some of the nation’s best colleges, and she’s accepted to the school of her choice, but she and her family can’t afford the tuition. She’d get a great education at an elite university, which would pay dividends later, but without financial aid, it’s not an option.
 
For the leading Senate Republican, the response appears to be, “Not everybody needs to go to Yale.” Apparently, the finest schools will be reserved for the wealthy.
 
McConnell has already used rhetoric that may alienate women voters; pushing young people away seems like another risky choice.
 

Education Policy, Higher Education and Mitch McConnell

The return of the 'shop around' higher-ed plan