There was a time when higher education wasn’t a national political issue. Then as now, the United States had a flourishing network of private and public colleges and universities, which were supported primarily by fee-paying students and subsidies from state governments, many of which took great pride in building academic powerhouses.

But in the decades since Sputnik and the Great Society, the federal role in higher education has increasingly taken center stage. Though Obamacare, taxes, and Iran are soaking up most of the attention, funding for higher education might emerge as a key dividing line in this year’s presidential election. Last year, the Occupy movement devoted much of its attention to mounting student-loan debt.

More recently, higher education once again became a flash point in the culture war. At a tea-party rally in Troy, Mich., last month, Rick Santorum called President Obama a “snob” for wanting all Americans to go to college. “I understand why he wants you to go to college,” he said. “He wants to remake you in his image.” The former Pennsylvania senator was suggesting that the president had embraced a one-size-fits-all worldview in which a college education is the highest aspiration of all students. And President Obama has dramatically expanded federal funding for higher education.

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