A growing partisan split over American higher education

American attitudes towards higher education are increasingly driven by party politics.  According to new Pew research, Democrats are more likely to like colleges and universities, while Republicans are even more critical of them than they used to be.

A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.

The major shift is really one that occurred within a single party. “Republicans’ attitudes about the effect of colleges and universities have changed dramatically over a relatively short period of time.”  The GOP went from a 54% positive/37% negative view in September 2015 to, now,  “a majority (58%) of Republicans say colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, while 36% say they have a positive effect.”

That’s an 18 point drop in just over one year.  Paul Fain observes that:

Viewers of right-leaning news media might not be surprised by Pew’s findings. Virtually every day Fox News, Breitbart and other conservative outlets run critical articles about free speech disputes on college campuses, typically with coverage focused on the perceived liberal orthodoxy and political correctness in higher education…

Bogus right-wing outlets also often target higher education. A fictitious story about California college students cutting off their genitals to protest Trump’s Mexican border wall plan recently made the rounds on purported news sites and social media.

That pattern of partisan attitude division plays out across several other major social institutions as well, to different degrees:

American attitudes towards institutions: Pew ResearchInterestingly, the two most disliked institutions are banks and news media.

Also interesting is the way age inflects some of these attitudes.  For one, there’s a fascinating divide within Democratic party adherents about media attitudes based on age.  The older the Democrat, the more likely they are to be fond of journalism:

Democrats age 50 and older are 26 percentage points more likely to say the news media is having a positive impact today than they were in 2015 (59% now, 33% then). By contrast, views among Democrats under 50 are little different today than they were in 2015; just 33% of this group currently rates the media’s impact positively.

Given the strong correlation between different news sources by age, I wonder what closer examination here would reveal.

For another, the older the Republican, the more likely they are to dislike higher education:

Younger Republicans continue to express more positive views of colleges than do older Republicans. But the share of Republicans under 50 who view colleges positively has fallen 21 points since 2015 (from 65% to 44%), while declining 15 points among those 50 and older (43% to 28%).

Here, too, I’d like to see more research.  Is this spike of dislike based on tv coverage of some student protests (half of Fox News’ viewers are over 68)?  Or is it based on an older, remembered fear of higher ed as a hotbed for PC unrest (1980s) or general campus upheaval (1960s)?

Looking ahead, will we see a return to a simply partisan approach to higher ed?

For the past 15 years or so, roughly, we’ve seen a degree of bipartisan alignment on education as a whole, with many Democrats deciding to reform learning, no matter what educators might think.  The largest examples here are: Ted Kennedy, who made No Child Left Behind Happen; Barack Obama, whose two terms included a full court press on all of education; Davis Guggenheim, who directed both Al Gore’s climate change documentary and an anti-public-schools documentary.  My favorite fictional example is the protagonist of the first season of House of Cards, who wars against teachers unions, and whose ideology and party affiliation are undetermined.

This is very different from, say, the clear partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans in the 1970s and 80s.  Then, one could reasonably count on the former to protect schools and teachers, and the latter to oppose and criticize them.  Perhaps we are falling back into that prior mode now, thanks to heightened partisanship, an energized progressive movement animated by anti-Trump politics, and perhaps by widespread dislike for much of education reform.  Testing, for example, once a bipartisan prize, is now widely derided.

If that’s correct, how long will the cleavage last?  Will it become simply part of the political and cultural landscape?

(thanks to David Cushing and Clyde Graham for recommending the story to me)

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14 Responses to A growing partisan split over American higher education

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    Not that ‘like’ is an appropriate response. The reaction is definitely partisan (although prosperous local Republicans expect their offspring to go to college. BUT imo some of that reaction is also fueled by unrealistic expectations and ongoing denial about the long terms effects of student on the other.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    disagree with the divide’s numbers or reasoning as we might, we cannot, must not ignore it.

    Like

  3. Hi Bryan

    Autocorrect gotcha, again! “If that’s correct, how long with [will] the cleavage last? Will it become simply part of the political and cultural landscape?” ​ I’m sorry I missed most of last weeks’ FTTE. My train from Seattle to Oakland was late and Windows didn’t like being shut off for a month: I only caught the last few minutes. I’m currently taking a Moodle 3.3 training class online through “Learn Moodle” and am looking forward to this week’s guest. I’m most interested in the personalized learning aspect of Moodle, as you can imagine. Can you ask about a student using Moodle to structure a personal learning course and integrating it into a personally structured degree? As usual, my internet will be iffy but I will also try and ask questions myself. Thanks.

    Peace & Resistance

    Mark Corbett Wilson

    “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” ~ Eric Hoffer

    On Tue, Jul 11, 2017 at 5:00 AM, Bryan Alexander wrote:

    > Bryan Alexander posted: “American attitudes towards higher education are > increasingly driven by party politics. According to new Pew research, > Democrats are more likely to like colleges and universities, while > Republicans are even more critical of them than they used to be. A m” >

    Like

  4. Hi Bryan

    Autocorrect gotcha, again! “If that’s correct, how long with [will] the cleavage last? Will it become simply part of the political and cultural landscape?” ​ I was just reminiscing in a Sociology class chatroom about Whittier, California, the Quaker/Republican town where I grew up. By the late ’60’s is had grown to 70,000 and had seven high schools and a (former teacher’s) college. They believed in education. I’m sorry I missed most of last weeks’ FTTE. My train from Seattle to Oakland was late and Windows didn’t like being shut off for a month: I only caught the last few minutes. I’m currently taking a Moodle 3.3 training class online through “Learn Moodle” and am looking forward to this week’s guest. I’m most interested in the personalized learning aspect of Moodle, as you can imagine. Can you ask about a student using Moodle to structure a personal learning course and integrating it into a personally structured degree? As usual, my internet will be iffy but I will also try and ask questions myself. Thanks.

    Peace & Resistance

    Mark Corbett Wilson

    “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” ~ Eric Hoffer

    On Tue, Jul 11, 2017 at 5:00 AM, Bryan Alexander wrote:

    > Bryan Alexander posted: “American attitudes towards higher education are > increasingly driven by party politics. According to new Pew research, > Democrats are more likely to like colleges and universities, while > Republicans are even more critical of them than they used to be. A m” >

    Like

  5. cjgaul says:

    Hi Bryan,

    As always I appreciate your analysis of this research. Your call for further inquiry and research considering trends between age demographics and preferred news outlet trends is a good point.

    I also wonder to what extent recent stories on apprenticeships and alternate credentials have impacted these findings. Also related: personalized learning in k-12 schools and increasing emphasis on skills training. Combine those with the narratives coming from Silicon Valley (“I dropped out of college”) and the pre-teen self-made YouTubber, and I’m not sure younger generations will consider to see the benefit in higher education.

    Will students who experience personalized learning (in whatever form it takes) desire what was once a typical 4-year college experience? Or will they seek a combination of boot-camps, MOOCs, and community-centered informal learning opportunities to receive their credentials?

    Personally, I’ve always wondered when Microsoft’s LinkedIn will offer services (via Microsoft Teams) to schools to by-pass college.

    Too pessimistic?

    Like

  6. If I work at a unionized university, is the dislike additive or multiplicative?

    Like

  7. Republican & Democrat. I thought we were finally
    moving away from these tired binary political diatribes?

    What do the numbers say about libertarians? Independents?

    Like

  8. Pingback: When education doomsayers aren’t grim enough | Bryan Alexander

  9. Pingback: Meanwhile, New America publishes an important education report | Bryan Alexander

  10. Pingback: Are American attitudes towards higher education segmenting? | Bryan Alexander

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