Losing the White Working Class, Too

Survey of voting bloc that favored Trump finds skepticism about value of higher education.

July 31, 2017
 
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Many professors and college leaders were stunned and concerned by recent data showing that more than half of Republicans say that colleges have a negative impact on the U.S., with wealthier, older and more educated Republicans being least positive.

Now comes a new poll with skepticism about higher education -- this time based on a survey of white working-class voters of all political affiliations. The findings indicate attitudes in this group that run directly counter to the views of college educators -- that higher education is essential to individual economic advancement. The key findings:

  • A majority (57 percent) said a college degree “would result in more debt and little likelihood of landing a good-paying job.”
  • A large majority (83 percent) said a college degree was “no longer any guarantee of success in America.”

The results come from a poll on a range of political issues commissioned by House Majority PAC, a political action committee that is working to regain a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. The group is seeking to identify which issues resonate with white working-class voters, which for the purposes of the study included those over the age of 24 without a college degree.

A summary of the findings by the pollster Brodnitz/Normington and published by Politico said in part, “In short, when these voters hear people tell them that the answer to their concerns is college, their reaction is to essentially say -- don’t force your version of the American dream on me.”

The survey is being discussed at a time when many Democratic groups are continuing to debate which messages will allow the party to connect with voters who backed Donald Trump and many congressional Republicans in the last election.

A key part of the message of Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign and of many other Democrats was that their party would help people afford college. Clinton backed a plan to make public higher education free to most families through a state-federal partnership. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent who challenged Clinton from the left during the Democratic primary, also pushed free public higher education. And he has been talking up the issue as a key to efforts to rebuild a Democratic majority.

While the college message did not resonate with the people surveyed, the message of job training did. The poll found that white working-class voters, including those who identify as Republicans, favor more of an emphasis on job training to help Americans compete in the global economy than they favor making it harder for foreign companies to sell goods in the U.S.

The pollsters’ summary says, “A message that says we need to understand that not everyone wants to go to college is also effective. This means we need to make sure that those who do not attend college get the skills and training they need to get jobs.”

The summary is almost sure to frustrate many people at community colleges, who note that their institutions are in fact colleges and provide job training every day -- with many campuses focused on job training in settings that don’t look like stereotypical colleges and that in many cases offer certificates, not just degrees.

Study after study has found that a college credential is essential for economic advancement, and these studies include associate-degree programs that focus on job-related training.

Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a group that helped develop and push free public higher education plans, tweeted out a series of replies to the new polling data. And one of the issues he stressed was that people need to remember that “college” isn’t just one image or one type of institution.

He noted that 40 percent of American students are at community colleges, but that “in the American lexicon ‘college’ still invokes the leafy four-year campus.” And he added, “It only gets worse as some media complain about colleges as bastions of ‘political correctness,’ untrue/dumb as that may be.”

Huelsman said he understood some of the skepticism found in the poll. “For working-class whites, there’s justified cynicism that taking on any, much less $30K, debt should be the pathway to a stable job,” he wrote ($30,000 would be slightly more than the typical debt level of someone who takes out loans to finish a four-year degree).

But Huelsman said that the solution to these challenges cannot be for Democrats to stop campaigning for free public higher education. “We need a better way to talk about this,” he said, and it needs to focus on the working class, including training, and not be “a middle-class giveaway.” He added, “I’m simultaneously scared that we’ll overcorrect and say postsecondary isn’t important (spoiler: it’s really important!)”

Further, Huelsman objected to too much focus on the white working class, noting the many nonwhite members of the working class.

He pointed to another new poll, this one by Demos, that may confirm the House Majority PAC’s findings about relatively modest white working-class interest in college tuition as a big issue, but that found much more interest among black working-class voters.

Among white working-class voters who voted for Barack Obama and then voted for Trump, only 21 percent saw debt-free public college as a major issue. That was behind six other possible issues, with building up infrastructure in ways that would create jobs attracting the most support, from 43 percent of these voters.

Among black working-class voters, however, 39 percent identified debt-free public college as a top issue, and that was the second rated of the seven possibilities. (Raising the minimum wage won top billing.)

As one of Huelsman’s tweets said, “The white working class [does not equal] the working class.”

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