Calling education a “top-tier issue” in this year’s election, a new College Board report  shows that swing state voters emphasize education as much as health care despite a comparative lack of attention from candidates.
In a representative sample of about 200 registered voters surveyed in each of nine swing states, 67 percent of respondents called education an extremely important issue for this year’s election. Only jobs and the economy (82 percent) and government spending (69 percent) scored higher.
While Democratic voters tended to emphasize education more than independents and Republicans, a majority of survey-takers in all three categories said they considered education an extremely important issue in this year’s election. Of voters who say education is extremely important, more than half in all three political groups said they’d be willing to pay $200 more in taxes each year to support education.
But you wouldn’t know that by monitoring campaign rhetoric. President Obama has stressed higher education in his State of the Union address and throughout his administration, but the topic has been largely absent from the battle for the Republican nomination. Front-runner Mitt Romney has hailed for-profit colleges , but otherwise has been fairly quiet about his views on education .
In fact, higher ed’s most prominent cameo in the Republican race was Rick Santorum’s assertion that Obama was a “snob”  for suggesting every American needed postsecondary education. The former Pennsylvania senator added that plenty of “good, decent men and women” were “not taught by some liberal college professor.”
The College Board’s results (which were gathered by two political survey companies, one catering to Democrats and the other to Republicans), suggest more nuanced opinions among conservatives than Santorum’s comments might indicate. While almost three-quarters of Democrats said their party represents their views on education well, only 52 percent of Republicans said the same. And 73 percent of Republicans (compared with 79 percent of Democrats) said they'd be more likely to support a candidate who said they wanted America to regain its status as the world's leading nation in granting postsecondary degrees and certificates.
College Board President Gaston Caperton said the differences in survey results between the parties were “not that significant” and that all candidates need to spend more time addressing education. Caperton, a Democrat, is the former governor of West Virginia.
“The thing I was surprised about is how strongly everybody supported education,” he said. “If I were a candidate today, I would certainly not want to be left out and be someone not supporting education.”
The biggest partisan divide was over the federal role in education. Most Democrats (58 percent) thought the federal government should be doing more to improve education, while 79 percent of Republicans thought states should be given more leeway and that the federal government was already too involved.
“Republicans and center-right voters believe education is a very important issue, but believe it is primarily a state and local responsibility,” said Whit Ayres, president of the Republican-leaning North Star Opinion Research.
Geoff Garin, president of the Democrat-oriented Hart Research Associates, said neither party was doing enough on education, and the results suggest any candidate could find success appealing to women and independents by stressing education. Women of all political moorings tended to be supportive of education, with 75 percent calling education extremely important, compared to 58 percent of men.
“Democrats do a little bit better on education,” Garin said. “The truth here is neither of the parties are earning A grades from the public on education. There’s lots of room for improvement here.”
Still, even though the survey suggests voters would be receptive to more discussion of education, the topic hasn't emerged as a frontline issue on the campaign trail.
“If you think about the amount of bandwidth government spending and healthcare get compared to education,” Garin said, “you can see the untapped potential of education here and the disproportionality in the amount of attention it receives.”
Among the study’s other findings:
- African Americans (91 percent) and Hispanics (81 percent) were much more likely than whites (62 percent) to say education was extremely important to them in this election.
- Those with a high school education (70 percent) or who had attended graduate school (71 percent) called education extremely important more often than those who attended some college (66 percent) or those with a four-year degree (60 percent).
- Sixty-five percent of survey takers and 48 percent of Republicans said they’d be likely to support a candidate who backs the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal residency to young illegal immigrants who attend college or join the military. It’s worth noting that several states with high numbers of immigrants were among the nine surveyed, including Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico. Every remaining Republican candidate opposes the DREAM Act. Former candidate Rick Perry supported a state DREAM Act, but that often worked to the Texas governor's political detriment among conservatives.
- Voters in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia (72 percent) were more likely to say education was extremely important to them than those in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (62 percent) or those in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico (64 percent).