A New Partisan Divide: Higher Education

 

We have become increasingly used to sharp differences of opinion between Democrats and Republicans. While the 2016 Presidential Election was the most consequential demonstration that our country is deeply polarized, there are more and more examples, some of them new and surprising.

The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in early June that showed fundamental differences by party affiliation in opinion about major institutions in the county.  The findings support other research that shows we are more likely to live close to people with similar political orientations, more likely to socialize with them and, increasingly, to obtain our news about the world from sources that have filtered it to meet our pre-existing views.

The Pew study showed clear divides in Democratic and Republican views about banks, churches, labor unions and the media.  While the most recent poll reflected a widening of the gaps between how party identifiers view these institutions, the overall assessments followed historical patterns that have been around for a while.

Not true for higher education.  The 2017 numbers are stunning, grounds for serious head scratching.  As recently as two years ago, Republicans saw the impact of colleges and universities as positive rather than negative by 54% to 37%.  Since then, support among the GOP for higher education has fallen off the table.  This year’s poll has only 36% of Republicans viewing colleges and universities as positive as opposed to 54% who view them negatively.  In every single demographic category that the poll examined, the level of support dropped significantly.

To underscore the contrast, Democrats, who have always held a highly positive view about higher education, support colleges and universities in this most recent survey by 72% to 19%.  The overall positive balance, 55% to 36%, highlights both the chasm between the parties and the hazards of looking only at overall poll numbers without examining the sub-categories.

This dramatic turnabout by Republicans is at first glance really puzzling.  Higher education has long been touted as the path to economic and social advancement in the United States.  The stories of parents sacrificing to enable their children to attend college are a cherished part of the American narrative.  And if the past weren’t significant enough, the reality of a global economy and international competition argue even more urgently for the importance of higher education.

Unraveling the numbers requires, by necessity, a certain amount of speculation.  Let me suggest three factors that may contribute to the new Republican antipathy to higher education.  None can stand alone as a total explanation and all of them require acknowledgement that the attitude is held by some Republicans despite being contrary to their self-interest.

For a number of years, the party of Donald Trump–he may have taken control only in 2016, but the party was clearly waiting for him to arrive–has been engaged in a war against science and facts.  Rejecting the overwhelming consensus among scientists about the threat to the planet of climate change is the most visible but hardly the only example.

Data about the impact of gun ownership on public safety is routinely and aggressively rejected.  The benefits of preventive health care and of a single-payer insurance system are attacked as socialism without more than a glance at the facts pointing to both dramatic health and financial benefits that would accrue .  This list could be much longer, but the common thread is a systematic rejection of science and facts.

The logical–in some worlds–next step is to turn against the institution in our society that is one of the major transmitter of science and facts.  The logic is very similar to that employed to attack the “mainstream media.”  Some Republicans rationalize their attacks by arguing that colleges are actually partisan institutions fostering radical ideas and a Democratic agenda.  Citing examples of individual faculty who openly espouse progressive views, they jump to sweeping generalizations without ever having been on any college campus other than the one they attended.

A second factor to consider springs from the success that Donald Trump has had in appealing to white working class individuals who are struggling in the changing economy.  For that segment of the Republican base, colleges are elite institutions pampering the children of the upper class.  Never mind that those students include the children of more affluent Republicans with whom they have joined in support of Donald Trump.  Regardless of the reasons that they didn’t go on to higher education, their perspective is often one of resentment rather than lost opportunities.

When Bernie Sanders proposed debt-free college and Hillary Clinton eventually supported the idea during the campaign, JD Vance’s “hillbillies” saw that as yet another reason to vote Republican and to show their disdain for higher education.

Moreover, many of them have not had positive experiences when they ventured into a college.  Some students were bilked by for-profit institutions that charged them a lot of money and gave them nothing of value.  It is another irony of the Trump Administration that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to loosen the rules on the very institutions which prey most heavily on the poor and disadvantaged.

Amy Goldstein’s brilliant study of Paul Ryan’s hometown, Janesville, points out another source of grievances.  Training programs in community colleges turned out to make little or no difference to those people trying to restart their lives after the local GM plant closed.

The third factor on my list is the growing politicization of issues across the board.  This one actually may cut across the other two explanations.  If partisanship is the primary motivating force for many Republicans, the specific issue doesn’t really matter.

Go back to two issues that I mentioned earlier–climate change and health care–that have become matters of Republican orthodoxy.  When not a single Republican member of the U.S. Senate is willing to acknowledge the threat posed by climate change, it suggests that the facts really don’t matter; sticking with your party is the only thing that matters.  Similarly, being willing to vote for a health care bill that harms millions of your own constituents is hard to understand other than as an exercise in party loyalty.

What the Pew study may really show is that Republicans are coalescing around opposition to higher education primarily as a way of showing party cohesion.  The other factors I described were part of the conversation that led to the incredible shift from their historical support for an institution that has been one of the keys to success in America.  It’s far from the only instance in which the Republican Party is placing partisan politics over benefit to the country and, more cynically, to their own supporters.