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:
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)