The partisan divide widens over American higher education, and it may cost us

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.

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First, the overall finding of declining academic reputation:

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.

attidues towards college by party_Pew 2019 -party only

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.

attitudes towards college professors_Pew 2019

The biggest divide here is by ideology, as in how people think of profs being political while teaching:

attitudes towards profs by party_Pew 2018

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.

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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.

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  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.

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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.

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11 Responses to The partisan divide widens over American higher education, and it may cost us

  1. Alex Floate says:

    You are right about the effects of some conservative news outlets on the attitudes of the consumers of that media. I am consistently amazed at people I once considered independently intelligent doing nothing more than repeating the mantras and incorrect ‘facts’ of these networks. Substantive policy discussions are replaced by the latest outrage from a ‘liberal’ campus. Even items like Michelle Obama’s push to ensure kids eat more fruit and veggies in school was sold as a dictatorial edict to outlaw cookies! (Which IMHO is the best dessert; so if it was true I would have grabbed my pitchfork and marched!)
    It is as if these viewers/listeners have outsourced their opinions and values to the worst of the conservative media, which can now solidly be considered nothing but propaganda.

  2. Sowmyan says:

    This is an interesting study. I am not a US citizen, but follow the events to see what trends may get repeated in my country. Where some phenomenon preceded in my country, I can provide some feedback to you. I guess when perceptions change so drastically, either the objects under observation have changed or the scales of the beholders have changed. The survey clearly brings out there is a marked flip relatable to affiliates of one party after that party has come into power. The way the other party’s opinion has remained stable shows this is more likely a political point of view. Considering they felt positive about it earlier, are they suggesting their current leadership has worsened the situation? That may not be the right political view. It is possible that the campaign brought about a different degree of awareness, sensitivity, or bias.

    As a survey result the findings may be mere perceptions. Further study is certainly possible to see if (a) students and parents think tuition fees increased substantially, (b) employers think skills required for jobs has changed or the skills have fallen among fresh graduates, (c) professors and students think discussion of personal political views has entered the class room.

    In my country there was a higher demand and lower supply of higher education. This even brought about reservations for social classes. After a long period of limited number of institutions operating, higher education became a lucrative business. More people from economically weaker sections took up Engineering studies. We now have many colleges where Engineering seats are going unfilled. The better established institutions are still doing well. But the newer institutions with weaker infrastructure / lower reputation are suffering. Due to cultural factors in my country, parents push their wards to pursue studies in demand or know to lead to well paid jobs, irrespective of the aptitude of the wards for such a study. Such students may have been filtered off in the earlier situation of shortage, but are able to get a seat in the current situation of plenty. But they are either unable to do well or get left out by employers who are seeking talent that can satisfy their need. Thus the glamour is getting diminished for many subjects, and aptitude is becoming a more important factor for decision making. Currently medical education is becoming the focus of attention. There is shortage of seats in this domain. Huge capitation fees are being charged. Political differences are surfacing about the medium of instruction / nationwide entrance tests skewing prospects of students from their state. I guess medical education is now poised for a boom to bust journey. However medical colleges are not as easy to set up as engineering colleges.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Sowmyan .

      You are correct about the importance of America’s party flip.

      Thank you for the outline of Indian higher education today. How is the nation preparing for a medical boom?

      • Sowmyan says:

        When such a boom happens as a business it would certainly be bad. When medical seats get sold at exorbitant prices, the emerging doctors tend to drive up the business by resorting to unnecessary treatments. If seats are available to every one who seeks, the quality may suffer, and many may be no better than quacks. I hear that currently unnecessary treatment is rampant.

        Medical insurance was not popular in India. Most people would pay out of pocket for treatment. But now a days high tech hospitals and hospitalization policies are increasing. My watching of western nations suggests that big pharma, and insurance together may collaborate to make medical treatment extremely expensive. I am not sure of ROI on medical education costs drives doctor’s fees up in USA, but in India that is also a factor. It may not be driving a single visit cost, but certainly drives up a single event cost through multiple visits, cautionary lab tests, specialist referrals etc. One factor keeping things in check is alternate medicine based on multiple traditional medicine practices, where the costs are relatively very low.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          There are many stories of unnecessary treatment in the US as well, for similar reasons.

          What’s the legal status of alternative medicines? Are state governments ok with them?

          • Sowmyan says:

            There are no regulatory restrictions on them. Nor do we hear of formal monitoring through oversight. It is a holy cow! Generally the practitioners become popular by word of mouth endorsement. There may be more quackery in this domain than in western medicine (Allopathy). Many efforts are on to bring them on to the scientific standards of global medicine. There is even a central Ministry for AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Sidhdha, Homeopathy).

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            Ah. That’s good to know.

            I expect the Modi administration and its allies might be happy to expand state support of some Hindu-associated treatments.

          • Sowmyan says:

            Homeopathy is not Hindu associated. It is German in origin. Unani is a perso-arabic tradition. These have all been traditional systems that had a following for a long time. Modi administration gave it a new name and status. Earlier it was known as ‘Department of Indian System of Medicine and Homeopathy (ISM&H)’ under the Ministry of Health.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            Oh, so Modi’s supporting traditional Hindu medicine and adding others to that support as well?

  3. Kenneth M Van Horn says:

    For all its benefits, liberal thinking is always about creating change. This gives liberal thinking a blind spot when it comes to tradition–particularly religious tradition–and a general disdain for it.

    But, the most Darwinian definition of religion is “the belief system of the survivors.” This is not what you will find in our sociology books though because that would be far too positive a view, because that would mean that the rejection of traditional mores, values, and beliefs is ultimately a rejection of survival.

    Our world is not very stable from a macro view. We have a long history of extinction level events and climate change, as well as wars, famines, pestilence, and economic collapse.

    I usually lighten the contemplation of such things by referring to it as the “zombie apocalypse,” but central to religion is the concept of the apocalypse and Judgment Day when those who do what is right and good survive and those who reject right and good perish. As Jesus put it, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Mt 7:24-27).

    Tests are coming to judge our works. Are we creating a future disaster or will we be safe and secure?

    Put in more agrarian terms, some old farmers outside a store watch a young metrosexual exit the store and leave and one looks at the other and says, “Looks like we’re going to lose the whole herd.”

    Herds, flocks, and societies require much the same handling to keep them healthy and sustainable and liberal philosophies seem blind to this–not just blind, but from a rural point of view, liberals seem determined to destroy this society.

    Society is fragile. A successful society is not just fragile but rare. Social conservatives understand this and are deeply alarmed by the leadership being provided by our colleges and universities because they believe it will ultimately lead to the dissolution of our society–whether their approach is traditional, rural and agrarian, or religious and philosophical.

    A reactionary response is to be expected.

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