Josh Hawley Wants to Break Higher Education to Own the Libs

August 5, 2019
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Senator Josh Hawley has had a lot of attention recently. He has been hailed by the Daily Wire as a “wunderkind conservative” and “the most important freshman conservative since Ted Cruz.” (This seems to have been intended as a compliment.) His criticism of the “cosmopolitan elite” in a speech to the National Conservatism Conference attracted notice from the Jewish community. (Not complimentary.) And he was also called out for grossly mischaracterizing the views of academics.

All of which is probably what it takes if you want to be thought of as the heir to Trumpism.

Lost in all of the atmospherics are Hawley’s actual attempts at legislating, especially his proposed higher education reforms. The two bills he has put forward seek to punish traditional higher education institutions. Together they are a direct attack on the public’s training for democratic citizenship.

One of Hawley’s bills would require colleges to repay 50 percent of the student loan balance of any attendee who defaults. The second bill would break a mythical higher education “monopoly” by allowing federal Pell Grants—which are at present reserved for low income students at certain universities and colleges of all kinds—to be used for “alternatively accredited” programs such as “employer-based apprenticeships and digital boot camps.”

Michael Nietzel, former president of Missouri’s second largest university, calls these bills “misleading, harmful and ill-conceived.”

And if you think Nietzel is just some liberal academic, he says that Hawley’s repayment bill is “even more foolish than the schemes recently introduced by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.”

While those “free college” plans could end all student loan debt by having the government pay, Hawley would end only some debt for some students. And with a proposal that flies in the face of personal responsibility and creates a moral hazard for young adults.


The Pell Grant bill is trickier. On the plus side, it has benchmarks to turn off the federal faucet for “alternative” programs. (These include employment rates, completion rates, and average salary of graduates.)

But to understand the problem with Hawley’s proposal, you need to understand the kind of students Pell Grants aid.

Many of these students are the first generation of their family to attend higher education. And many of them end up at schools that have little to no resources to aid students who struggle with college. Even so, of the 7.5 million students who get Pell Grants, about half graduate in six years—which is only 10 percent less than the national gradation average, according to a study by the Hechinger Report.

Why does Hawley want to push these students away from traditional higher education?

It can’t be a question of “workplace skill training.” Because trade schools—also known as two-year technical schools—already qualify for Pell Grants. Even the disastrous money pits known as “for-profit” schools can get Pell funding.

The short answer is: It’s about politics.

As Nietzel says, “Hawley wants to equate higher education with four-year schools because he knows his conservative base is more likely to view them with disdain and suspicion.”

Why do 73 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners think higher education is going in the wrong direction? More than three quarters of that group cite “professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom.” And Hawley wants to break up the monopoly that this myth encourages.

The monopoly Hawley is after isn’t “skills training.” It is the peddling of preparation for the “cosmopolitan consensus,” as he noted in his National Conservativism Conference speech. This consensus, Hawley charges, agrees on a “progressive agenda of social liberation in tune with the priorities of their wealthy and well-educated counterparts” around the world.

Hawley’s bill isn’t about helping disadvantaged students gain valuable skills. It’s about dismantling a class of enemies—his “cosmopolitan consensus”—who he believes, “look down on the common affections that once bound this nation together: things like place and national feeling and religious faith.”

In other words: because their politics is not his politics.

At the end of the day, Hawley’s education reforms aren’t about “reforming” anything. They’re just about owning the libs.

So maybe Hawley really is Ted Cruz’s heir.

Matthew Boedy

Matthew Boedy is an assistant professor of rhetoric at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville. He is on Twitter at @matthewboedy.