Keith Whittington: The kids are alright

SpeakIt has rapidly become a common trope that the current crop of college students belong to a generation of “snowflakes.” Unusually sensitive, unusually intolerant, the kids these days are seen by some as a worrying threat to the future of America’s liberal democracy. High-profile incidents on college campuses like the shouting down of Charles Murray at Middlebury College and the rioting in the streets of Berkeley during an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos give vivid support for the meme. Some surveys of the attitudes of millennials about tolerance and free speech lend some further credence to the snowflake characterization. When the Knight Foundation and Gallup asked college students whether diversity or free speech was more important, a slim majority chose diversity. When a Brookings Institution fellow asked college students whether it was acceptable to use force to silence a speaker making “hurtful” statements, a surprisingly large number said yes.

Should we be worried about the children? Perhaps not. Context matters, and some of the current hand-wringing over events on college campuses has tended to ignore the broader context. In particular, when told that the current generation of students do not seem fully supportive of free speech and tolerance of disagreement, we are rarely told in comparison to what. Compared to a perfect ideal of American values, the current generation of students might fall somewhat short—but so do the generations that preceded them. We aspire to realize our beliefs in tolerance and liberty, but we muddle through without a perfect commitment to our civil libertarian aspirations.

It would be a mistake to be overly complacent about American public support for civil liberties, including free speech, but we should also be cautious about rushing into excessive pessimism about the current generation of college students. It has been a routine finding in the public opinion literature going back decades that Americans express high levels of support for the freedom of speech in the abstract, but when asked about particular forms of controversial speech that support begins to melt away. In the middle of the twentieth century, for example, one study found that more than three-quarters of a sample of lawyers thought that university students should have the freedom to invite controversial speakers to campus, but less than half of the general public agreed. When asked if the government should be allowed to suppress speech that might incite an audience to violence, less than a fifth of the leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union said yes, but more than a third of the members of the ACLU were ok with it. In the 1950s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of Communists should be restricted. In the 1970s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of racists should be restricted. In the 2000s, Americans said they supported free speech, but they also said the speech of Muslims and atheists should be restricted.

Current American college students say that speakers with whom they strongly disagree should be allowed to speak on campus. But a majority of liberal college students changed their mind when they are told that such a speaker might be racist, and more than a third of conservative college students changed their mind when they are told that such a speaker might be “anti-American.” Fortunately, the evidence suggests that only a tiny minority of college students favor activists taking steps to disrupt speaking events on campus. Those numbers are not ideal, but it is important to bear in mind that the college-educated tend to be more tolerant to disagreeable speakers and ideas than is the general public, and that is pretty much as true now as it has been in the past. Public support for the freedom of speech has not always stood firm, and campus debates over the scope of free speech are likely to have large consequences for how Americans think about these issues in the future.

We should draw some lessons from recent events and surveys, but the lesson should not be that current students are delicate snowflakes. First, we should recognize that the current generation of college students is not unique. They have their own distinctive concerns, interests, and experiences, but they are not dramatically less tolerant than those who came before them. Second, we should appreciate that tolerance of disagreement is something we as a country have to constantly strive for and not something that we can simply take for granted. It is easy to support freedom for others in the abstract, but it is often much more difficult to do so in the midst of particular controversies. The current group of college-age Americans struggle with that tension just as other Americans do and have before. Third, we should note that there is a vocal minority on and off college campuses who do in fact question liberal values of tolerance and free speech. They do so not because they are snowflakes but because they hold ideological commitment at odds with values that are deeply rooted in the American creed. Rather than magnifying their importance by making them the avatar of this generation, those who care about our democratic constitutional commitments should work to isolate them and show why theirs is not the best path forward and why diversity, tolerance, and free speech are compatible and mutually reinforcing values and not contrasting alternatives. It is an ongoing project we hold in common to understand and reaffirm the principles of free speech that underlie our political system. Today’s college students are not the only ones who could benefit from that lesson.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech

Christopher Loss: Will higher education be free?

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By Christopher P. Loss

Higher education will figure more than ever in the coming presidential battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Once a political afterthought, higher education has become a major policy problem of great consequence in recent elections. This one will be no different.

The candidates have their choice of issues from which to choose, from state disinvestment and affordability to access and free speech. But the only one that’s going to matter come November will be Clinton’s vow to make public college free for families who earn less than $125,000 and Trump’s determined opposition to it.

The idea of “free college” is not new. In 1947 President Truman favored it. The recent discussion of it, however, was sparked by President Obama in 2015 when he proposed America’s College Promise—at $60 billion plan modeled on Tennessee’s free community college program of the same name. Late in his second term, Obama’s proposal flamed out in Congress but became a touchstone of Senator Bernie Sanders’ upstart presidential bid and, ultimately, part of the Democratic Party’s platform.

The “free college” issue will be central to both campaigns. Trump, who has yet to put forth a higher education platform, has the easier task. He will do what he can to portray Clinton’s plan as just another big ticket, big government giveaway that the country cannot possibly afford—a wasteful bailout for the under-performing, outmoded higher education sector. Among fiscal conservatives and the “poorly educated” whom Trump has actively courted, this will be all they need to hear.

For her part, Clinton will press hard on the Trump University debacle for as long as she can, though at some point she will have to make her case for government action in what would be a colossally complicated and hugely expensive undertaking. The specter of Clinton’s failed effort at healthcare reform in the 1990s also looms large. For years that failure was used by her opponents as exhibit A of big government run amuck.

In the aftermath, if not afterglow, of the Affordable Care Act, however, Clinton has been partially redeemed as a politician ahead of her time. Will the American people get behind Clinton on the free college issue? Is she a sage or just another political opportunist willing to say and do anything to win over the college-educated voters who abandoned her in the spring but that she needs in the fall? This is the question heading into November.

Which begs a series of other related questions: First, is the college cost crunch the big issue that Clinton and others in the media have made it out to be?

The answer to this question is a qualified yes: the cost of college is a daunting burden for many students, but especially for poor students. Yet it’s also true that there is an enormous amount of misinformation about the “real” cost of college, as William Bowen and Michael S. McPherson detail well in their new book, Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2016). Using data from the College Board, they put college costs in perspective, noting that 61 percent of college students graduate with some debt and that the average debt per graduate is around $26,000. They dig deeper to make sense of exactly what it means, since 39 percent of indebted graduates owe less than $10,000 and another 28 percent owe between $10,000 and $25,000. Only four percent of students owe more than $100,000. These data may surprise readers who have relied on anecdotal news articles and misleading documentaries for their information; for Bowen and McPherson, these data suggest that the affordability problem might well be “overblown” and that there are bigger issues like college completion that need to be addressed.

For the sake of argument, let’s agree that rising tuition and fees and associated debt represents a problem of some magnitude. This leads to the second question: if Clinton is elected—and most prognosticators seem to think she will be—is the wholesale reconstruction of the federal-higher education student aid model politically feasible? I wouldn’t count on it. Although it is clear that we long ago entered an era where a college diploma is necessary for upward mobility and global competitiveness—when the social and economic benefits of education beyond high school are beyond doubt—a total overhaul the federal aid model seems farfetched. Not only are there real issues with the associated costs and administrative challenges of implementation, as Kevin Carey noted recently in the New York Times, the likelihood of continued Republican control of the House as well as the Senate would make it difficult if not impossible to pass such a law.

Where does this leave us? More than likely it leaves the higher education system in exactly the place that it is today, with students left to navigate the existing aid system in order to go to school.

LossChristopher P. Loss is associate professor of public policy and Higher Education and associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Between Citizens and State: The Politics of of American Higher Education in the 20th Century (Princeton University Press, 2012), which won the  2013 American Educational Research Association Outstanding Book Award.