Americans are increasing critical of higher education, according to new Pew Research. That actually means Republicans.
This has important implications for the future of post-secondary education in the United States.
only half of American adults think colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days. About four-in-ten (38%) say they are having a negative impact – up from 26% in 2012.
That’s a key milestone: only one half of Americans (adults) think higher ed is doing well by the nation. The negative number isn’t quite so high, but is rising, and now stands at more than one third.
But this is really about one party. The unnamed Pew study author observes that “[t]he increase in negative views has come almost entirely from Republicans and independents who lean Republican.” Those views now constitute a majority within the GOP: “From 2015 to 2019, the share saying colleges have a negative effect on the country went from 37% to 59% among this group.”
In contrast, “[o]ver that same period, the views of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic have remained largely stable and overwhelmingly positive.” That’s despite groups like this and the Obama administration’s continuous pressure on higher ed to reform.
This divide breaks out in two interesting ways for Pew. First, there’s a split over what colleges and universities teach and for what purpose:
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say students not getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace is a major reason why the higher education system is headed in the wrong direction (73% vs. 56%).
Second, there are very different attitudes about college and university faculty members:
84% of Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party said they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in college and university professors to act in the best interests of the public. Only about half (48%) of Republicans and Republican leaners said the same.
The biggest divide here is by ideology, as in how people think of profs being political while teaching:
There is also a very large demographic difference among Republicans, which is important to note:
Older Republicans are much more likely than their younger counterparts to point to ideological factors, such as professors bringing their views into the classroom and too much concern about political correctness on campus. For example, 96% of Republicans ages 65 and older who think higher education is headed in the wrong direction say professors bringing their views into the classroom is a major reason for this. Only 58% of Republicans ages 18 to 34 share that view.
I suspect some of this is due to tv news viewing, which is largely the province of people over 65. However, one of my flaws in horizon-scanning is that I refuse to watch tv news. I would not be surprised to see that Fox News relentlessly shows stories about liberal profs and revolting students. Can any reader confirm or debunk my hypothesis?
So why does this matter to the future of education, and to you?
It means we could expect rising Republican pressure on higher education in many forms. Historically, we know that includes: efforts to cut state funding to public universities; introducing state laws to do various things to curriculum and academic labor; scoring political points by criticizing select stories from higher ed; greater support for religious campuses. For the last point we can see evidence in North Carolina, where Republican legislators are considering directing cybersecurity funds away from public universities and towards a small, private, and very religious campus. (thanks to Linda Burns for sharing that one)
On the flipside, we might expect Republicans to seek more funding for vocational and technical education, likely by redirecting it from universities.
The dislike of faculty can lead to more criticism of and attacks on professors who do public intellectual work. It also hamstrings any chance of public universities to try rebuilding tenure. This may have very bad human costs.
The curricular focus of Republican ire is also important. Conceivably we could see Republicans on private college boards and in state government lean on campuses to defund the fields they don’t like – i.e., the humanities in general, or women’s studies/ethnic studies/etc. in particular.
I’m not sure how Democrats will respond. On the one hand, they are likely to react defensively, given high levels of partisanship, not to mention close links between education levels and voting Democratic. On the other hand, many Dems are still critical of higher ed. Note the majority who think colleges and universities aren’t doing enough to equip students for work, not to mention the 92% who think tuition is too high. If Democrats do leap to the defense of academia, Republicans can ramp up their opposition, and academia rises to the top of vigorously fought culture wars.
For academics, this means increasing pressure on top of what we’re already experiencing. That could play out in increasing acrimony on campuses (classrooms to department meetings), governance, budgeting, and long-term strategy.