WASHINGTON — In one of the lower policy points during the 2012 Republican primary campaign, Rick Santorum told a tea party group, "President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob."
It was a complex electoral maneuver: Take a fragile middle-class expectation — and a powerful immigrant and working-class hope — and make it into an object of populist derision. Do you really want all that pipe smoking and port sipping and late-night dorm planning to undermine the Constitution?
Santorum was, in fact, the GOP candidate most conspicuously attempting to address working-class concerns. But the paradox only heightened the symbolism. Americans seek a valuable but increasingly overpriced good for their children. Republicans answer with a heaping helping of ideology. The indifference hurts as much as the issue.
Recent figures indicate that growing numbers of high school graduates are taking Santorum's career advice. The share of high school graduates (66 percent) entering college last fall was the lowest since 2006. This may be the result, in part, of improving job prospects for those without post-secondary education. But it is difficult, in an economy that places a premium on skills, to regard a smaller aggregate stock of skills as a positive development. We should want more people to go to college — and to find effective apprenticeships, occupational certificates and job training.
A steady rise in the percentage of people who graduate from high school is one of the (rare) success stories in American education. The graduation rate increased from 71.7 percent in 2001 to 81 percent in 2012, with serious gains for Hispanic and African-American students. Maintaining this trajectory, graduation rates could reach 90 percent by 2020.
But after high school, what then? The benefits of a college education — in wages, employment levels and avoiding poverty — remain comparatively robust, but largely because the prospects of those with a high school diploma have dimmed. In 1979, according to the Pew Research Center, the typical high school graduate earned 77 percent of what a college graduate made. Among millennials, that figure is now 62 percent.
For the poor, a college degree remains an important avenue of upward mobility. But for those in the middle class, the aspiration of a diploma is increasingly mixed with fear. The economic returns of a college degree are stagnant. Many who hold one are underemployed. Still, the alternative is worse.
At the same time, the cost of a four-year college degree has ballooned. For the middle class, an average year of tuition is roughly half of household income. So both students and parents borrow massively to purchase a degree that can cost as much as a house, knowing it has diminishing value and used to cost less. It is not a wrong decision, but hardly a satisfying one. "In a modern, knowledge-based economy," says Paul Taylor of Pew, "the only thing more expensive than going to college is not going to college."
But the fact that college costs have risen faster than nearly any other good or service is not a law of nature. Higher education is a failing market, in which most of the incentives are set toward higher tuitions and higher borrowing. The student loan system makes it easier for students to pay more than they can afford and so for schools to charge more than they are worth, while the accreditation system restricts experiments with new methods of teaching and learning.
Market-oriented conservatives should be coming up with ideas to shift the incentives of the system, rather than continuing to inflate the bubble with additional debt. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have set out proposals that would widen the accreditation process for lower-priced educational alternatives and increase the data given to students about potential earnings in various fields — allowing them to make an informed decision about incurring debt. It is a start. Barely.
For Republicans, the issue of higher education is emblematic. There are a number of vital but creaky social systems — elementary and secondary education, health care, the tax code, the immigration system, the social safety net — in need of serious, market-based reform. A party of innovation, redesign and repair might have considerable appeal. It would, among other good things, directly address many of the concerns of the working and middle class.
But a party of opposition, faux populism and reflexive anti-government ideology is not up to this task. Given our level of institutional dysfunction, the country needs Republicans to be a source of solutions.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.