The Conservative Pipeline Problem

Study suggests that the lack of ideological diversity among professors can be traced in part to reasons (other than bias) why right-leaning undergrads don't pursue Ph.D.'s.
November 16, 2007

Colleges have been increasingly competing to offer "family friendly" policies -- in the hopes of attracting the best academic talent from a pool of Ph.D.'s that includes both more women than ever before as well as many men who take parenting responsibilities seriously. A new study suggests that such policies may be important for another group that believes its needs aren't fully addressed in academe: conservatives.

The study -- "Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don't Get Doctorates" -- argues that the much debated minority status for conservatives in higher education may be the result of differing priorities of graduating college seniors of different political persuasions. The study presents evidence that conservatives are significantly more likely than liberals -- at the point when college students decide whether to apply to graduate school -- to value raising a family and having money. In contrast, liberals at that point in their lives are significantly more likely to value writing original works.

The authors of the study do not dispute that conservatives are a distinct minority in academe and that the imbalance is problematic. They also hold open the possibility -- much proclaimed by other authors at the conference of the American Enterprise Institute where all of the work was presented -- that there may be bias against conservatives (although they question whether this has been proven). But the authors of the work on the pipeline say there is considerable evidence that could show conservative self-selection out of academic careers.

"We're not suggesting causality," said Matthew Woessner, an assistant professor of public policy at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg. "There's much more work that needs to be done." But he said that the evidence in the paper pointed away from any one explanation for the ideological imbalance. "There's a lot of nuance in the findings. What we are showing is that there are a lot of little pieces that contribute to the overall imbalance, not one single thing," he said. Woessner wrote the paper with April Kelly-Woessner, an associate professor of political science at Elizabethtown College.

The husband-and-wife social science team based their findings on analysis they did from national surveys of freshmen and seniors conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles's Higher Education Research Institute. They found that in both choices of majors and in personal values, conservatives seem to be taking themselves off the track for academic careers well before graduate school. The authors did not find evidence of statistically significant differences in grades or measures of academic performance, so most of the report is based on the premise that interests and experiences are at play, not aptitude.

For starters, the paper finds that conservatives are much more likely to pick majors in professional fields -- areas that tend to put students on the fast track for an M.B.A. (or for a job) more than a Ph.D. Only 9 percent of students on the far left and 18 percent of liberals major in professional fields, compared to 33 percent of conservatives and 37 percent of those who identify as being on the far right.

Further, the study finds that not only (as has been reported many times previously) do students who identify as liberal outnumber those who identify as conservative, but that those who are liberal are much more likely to consider a Ph.D. The UCLA survey of seniors found that only 13 percent of all students were considering a Ph.D. But the numbers were significantly higher for those on the left (24 percent of the far left and 18 percent of liberals) than on the right (11 percent of the far right and 9 percent of conservatives).

The study also finds significant differences among colleges seniors in values that they care about -- including values that might make someone more or less likely to enter a Ph.D. program. For instance, in a values study, the seniors were asked to rank certain experiences on a four-point scale (with 1 as not important, 2 as somewhat important, 3 as very important, and 4 as essential). The results show a divide.

Student Values and Ideology

  Raising a Family Being Well Off Financially Writing Original Works Developing Meaningful Philosophy of Life
Far left 2.58 2.05 2.19 3.03
Liberal 2.98 2.50 1.81 2.75
Moderate 3.22 2.73 1.60 2.51
Conservative 3.40 2.55 1.53 2.55
Far right 3.39 2.79 1.63 2.53

It's not that conservatives don't care about philosophy or that liberals don't like kids, the paper suggests, but different underlying values that may frame decisions.

"Conservatives appear to be very practically oriented," said Woessner.

Kelly-Woessner said that for many who want to raise a family, academic life may be daunting -- what with both graduate school's relative poverty and the long hours and stress of the tenure track. "The path up to tenure is perceived as very hostile to family," she said, adding that colleges would do well -- for all kinds of reasons -- to become more family friendly.

In keeping with the overall paper, Kelly-Woessner suggested that a cumulative effect may be visible in explaining lopsidedly liberal departments. "You are just starting with the choice of majors," she said, and then go on to what students value at the point of graduation.

In terms of suggestions, the paper argues both for family-friendly policies and for less politics in the classroom, expressing hope that the latter might attract more conservatives to the social sciences and humanities.

But the authors stress that -- to the extent liberals and conservatives finishing colleges have different values -- imbalances among college faculties may be permanent.

"Ideology represents far more than a collection of abstract political values," they write. "Liberalism is more closely associated with a desire for excitement, an interest in creative outlets and an aversion to a structured work environment. Conservatives express greater interest in financial success and strong desires to raise families. From this perspective, the ideological imbalance that permeates much of academia may be somewhat intractable."


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