The pull-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps narrative is popular in politics of all kinds, but it’s a natural choice for the Republican Party, given its emphasis on personal responsibility and success against the odds.
That narrative was on display in the opening speeches on Tuesday of the Republican National Convention—especially concerning the fathers of the politicos. Ted Cruz, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat from Texas, lauded his father, an ex-revolutionary who fled Cuba with $100 sewn into his underwear. Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and presidential candidate this year, played up his status as a first-generation American, given that his father’s family came over on a boat called Providence when he was 7.
But Gov. Chris Christie’s family story stood out for mentioning higher education as a key to the American dream. “Dad grew up in poverty,” the New Jersey governor said. “After returning from Army service, he worked at the Breyers ice-cream plant in the 1950s. With that job and the GI Bill, he put himself through Rutgers University at night to become the first in his family to earn a college degree. Our first family picture was on his graduation day, with Mom beaming next to him, six months pregnant with me.”
It’s an inspiring picture of achievement, no doubt. But there was a striking dissonance between what Governor Christie was saying and what the Republican platform says about public investment and higher education generally. In a speech criticizing the Obama administration as an advocate of “big government,” the governor—one of the rising stars of the Republican Party—talked about the opportunity afforded to his family by a prestigious state university and by one of the biggest federal programs in recent history.
The irony wasn’t lost on liberals. Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist and consultant, jumped all over the remarks on his Twitter feed on Tuesday night: “Christie: Dad went to Rutgers on the GI Bill. Dems built that.” (Incidentally, the Christie patriarch is not the only GOP beneficiary. Aldo Santorum, the former senator’s immigrant father, is said to have called the GI Bill “the greatest gift he received” in an obituary on this conservative Web site. It allowed him to get a doctorate in clinical psychology, which led to a career working for Veterans Affairs.)
What’s more interesting to ponder is whether Governor Christie’s father would have been able to get that degree today, given the recent history of receding state support and inflating costs. A New York Times article from 1957 says that Lewis Webster Jones, then president of Rutgers, announced a hefty 23-percent tuition increase. Still, the rate was enviably low: $200 a semester, or around $3,200 a year in today’s dollars. (Out-of-state students paid $250 a semester, or $4,000 a year today.) Compare that to $10,356, plus $2,717 in fees, for a commuter student in 2012. (It’s roughly double that if you need room and board, and it’s a heck of a lot more if you have the misfortune of being from another state.)
Over the years, those increases have been needed to cover expenses the colleges brought upon themselves—like growing administrations, growing campuses, and deferred maintenance—but, like colleges in other states, Rutgers has had to cover declining state support. According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers, public support for higher education per full-time enrollment went down 12.5 percent nationwide from 2006 to 2011, but it went down 20 percent in New Jersey. According to the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, students now bear 60 percent of the cost of their higher education, compared with 30 percent in 1990. The percentage of a New Jersey family’s disposable income needed to pay tuition has gone from 12.6 percent to 17 percent since 2002.
Cuts in education have come at the hands of both Democrats and Republicans, in New Jersey and elsewhere. Mr. Christie, at least, said before he took office that he would increase state funds for higher education, calling New Jersey’s level of support “disgraceful.” So far, however, his support has been flat, say policy observers.
But few others on the national political scene talk openly about giving public colleges more state money. In fact, the GOP platform, which was approved on Tuesday, seems to be directing working-class and needy students toward private loans and toward community colleges and for-profit colleges. In the latter institutions, students have had trouble with completion and defaulting on loans.
Who knows? When talking about higher education, the convention speakers 20 years from now might have a different “bootstraps” story.
Photo: Charles Dharapak, AP Images