As the nation heads to the polls today, one trend in American politics is very clear: college-educated voters, once solid supporters of the Republican Party, now overwhelmingly favor the Democrats.
Different polls and exit polls reach slightly different conclusions about the size of the Democratic advantage with college-educated voters. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center has concluded that in the 2020 election, college-educated voters chose Biden over Trump by a 14-point margin, 56 percent to 42 percent. The gap was even larger for voters with graduate educations, who went for Biden over Trump by an astounding 67 percent to 32 percent. A more recent analysis by Pew concluded that 57 percent of college-educated voters generally support Democrats, with only 37 percent favoring Republicans. Regardless of the precise size of the Democratic advantage, the underlying fact is undeniable: the more higher education you have, the more likely you are to vote for Democrats.
The clear alignment of college-educated voters with the Democratic Party has important ramifications for higher education. With increasing frequency, Republican elected officials view higher education as a Democratic special interest group, and thus an opponent. Because college-educated voters are no longer included in the Republican base, these voters—and the institutions that educate them—can be attacked without fear of political consequences. Indeed, given the high degree of political polarization in America, those attacks may actually curry favor with voters who did not go to college.
What does this look like on the ground? Consider a speech in this election cycle by Ohio Republican Senate candidate J. D. Vance. In an address to the National Conservatism Conference entitled “The Universities Are the Enemy,” Vance, a graduate of Ohio State University and Yale, argued that universities are grounded in “deceit and lies.” According to Politico, which reported on the speech, Vance declared, “I think if any of us want to do the things that we want to do for our country and for the people who live in it, we have to honestly and aggressively attack the universities in this country.”
What will this attack look like in the coming years? One major focus will be the curriculum of public colleges and universities. Democrats tend to believe that college-educated voters lean in their direction because those voters are more rational, more capable of discerning truth from lies and more committed to science on questions like climate change. Republicans, not surprisingly, tell a different story. They note that somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of college faculty members vote Democratic. They conclude from this fact that college is one giant liberal indoctrination machine. That interpretation is bolstered by their own personal experiences, for many Republicans were part of tiny (and often loathed) conservative minorities on the college campuses they attended.
To “fix this problem,” Republican governors and state legislatures in the coming years will expand efforts to limit how and what professors teach in the classroom. Expect history, sociology, political science and any topic related to race, gender and sexuality to get close scrutiny. If universities fail to restrict academic and pedagogical freedom, they may see budget cuts. Ultimately, the question of the scope of academic freedom in public institutions may go to the Supreme Court, which has not decided a major academic freedom case since Keyishian v. Board of Regents in 1967.
Republicans will also seek to appoint more political allies to university presidencies and chancellorships. The recent hiring of conservative Republican senator Ben Sasse to the presidency at the University of Florida is a harbinger, not an isolated incident. Sasse is an almost unthinkable unicorn in today’s higher education world: a president of a major research university who openly opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. I expect he will be one of many such leaders 10 years from now.
Private universities will not be exempt from Republican scrutiny. During the Trump administration, Congress passed an excise tax on large university endowments on a party-line vote, with Republicans in favor, Democrats against. Congress may revisit this issue if Republicans control the House and Senate in 2023, expanding both the scope and amount of the tax. I can imagine legislation that ties continued tax exemption to expanded efforts to “depoliticize” faculty and curriculum.
Finally, political polarization over higher education will impact efforts to make higher education more affordable. In the past, support for the Pell Grant program was strong in both parties. Increasingly, however, Republicans believe expanded public funding for higher education is fueling tuition increases and favors privileged college-educated Americans over their own blue-collar base. Indeed, they may secretly worry that making college more affordable will simply expand the voting bloc of their Democratic opponents. This viewpoint underlies the increasingly insistent claims from conservatives and conservative think tanks that “not every person needs to go to college.” President Biden’s effort to make community college free landed with a thud in Congress precisely for this reason.
How should the higher education community respond to these developments? Normally, a corporation or interest group that faces growing opposition from the left or right will modify its behavior, “rebalancing” in order to rebuild the bipartisan support necessary to thrive. Ideally, the higher education sector would pursue this goal, taking extra steps to ensure that conservatives are welcome on campus, that faculty represent a less narrow ideological spectrum and that courses and programs with overt political content are balanced between left and right. These steps would help blunt conservative criticism and rebuild bipartisan support, which I view as essential to the long-term health of our higher education system, to the survival of academic freedom and to the retention of college education as an element of the American dream.
Unfortunately, this kind of course correction is unlikely. In today’s highly polarized environment, compromise is viewed as surrender. The appointment of Sasse to the presidency at Florida, for example, drew sharp protests by student activists, faculty organizations and unions. I sympathize with this response. It is hard for liberals to accept a college president who opposes civil rights protections for same-sex marriage, and it is equally hard for faculty members to support a presidential appointment process with limited transparency. That said, this kind of campus reaction, however heartfelt, will make any effort to address perceptions of liberal bias in the academy very challenging for presidents, chancellors and trustees to pursue.