- - Sunday, November 17, 2019

The growing movement in state capitals to allow or require public universities to pay student athletes has created a unique opportunity.

Not only is it an opportunity to reorient public policy debates over issues related to higher education, but it is a rare chance to bring Republicans and Democrats and liberals and conservatives together at a time of bitter partisan and ideological division.

A recent example came in Michigan, where a bill to allow for paying student athletes was introduced in the lower house of the state legislature with bipartisan support. This follows a much-publicized new law in California that has served as model legislation by legislators in other states.

Nobody in their right mind can defend big-time college sports when schools, coaches, apparel companies and TV networks — in short, everyone but the athletes — make millions off ostensibly amateur athletics.

It is also impossible to defend ever-increasing tuition rates, particularly at those schools with highly profitable sports. Just imagine if colleges writ large spent as much time or money caring about the post-graduation success of students as they did with sports.

The fact is Democrats and Republicans both seem to agree that higher education is out of control. However, they widely differ on the solution.

The presidential election is a good example.

Socialist contenders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the Vermont and Massachusetts senators, have both championed what amounts to free higher education and student loan amnesty or bailouts.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of conservatives are recognizing the societal problems caused by the higher education industrial complex even if the Republican Party lacks an official policy stance on the issue.

The numbers don’t lie. Millennials, aka those born between 1981 and 1996, owe $497.6 billion in outstanding student loan debt, according to federal statistics. The crippling cost of repaying that debt has kept too many under-40s from getting married, buying a house, having children or even opening a small business.

The growing bipartisan and pan-ideological consensus that a crisis exists is in some ways reminiscent of the early debate a few years ago around criminal justice reform. The movement around that issue made strange bedfellows by bringing together reform-minded interests on the right and left.

Yet, it is also quite different, not least because the Ivory Tower is such a large chunk of today’s Democratic base.

As a result, the ideas tossed around by Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren and other Democrats generally involves rewarding the partisan loyalty of the higher education industrial complex by giving them even more taxpayer dollars, as opposed to, say, results-oriented reform or a complete overhaul of the system.

Democrats are also hoping that the college crisis will be a wedge issue in the same way as they have previously used Social Security and Medicare to scare senior citizens away from Republicans.

This creates a huge political problem for the GOP, especially now that millennials have supplanted seniors as the single largest voting demographic. Taking up the issue of paying student athletes would be a good first step for Republicans and conservatives more broadly.

Otherwise, you can be sure that Democrats will win the debate on the college crisis as sooner than later it will be politically impossible to oppose what Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren are proposing.

• Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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