Why Republicans Don't Trust Higher Ed

New Gallup data show GOP attitudes about academe are based on views of campus politics. Would abandoning the term “liberal arts” change things?

August 17, 2017
 
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Not only do Republicans and Democrats have different levels of confidence in higher education, but they are coming at the issue by focusing on different issues, a new poll by Gallup shows. Republicans who distrust higher education focus on campus politics, while the smaller share of Democrats who distrust higher education tend to focus on rising college prices, the pollster found.

The data were released a month after a report from the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Republicans say colleges have a negative impact on the direction of the United States. The shift was dramatic. Two years ago, Pew found that 54 percent of Republicans said colleges had a positive impact on the direction of the United States, while this year 58 percent said colleges had a negative effect. Among Democrats, 72 percent this year viewed colleges as having a positive impact on the direction of the country.

Gallup set out to see if it would find similar partisan shifts in the view of higher education, and -- if so -- why members of the two major parties were splitting in this way. Gallup's findings largely confirm those of Pew -- a growing partisan divide on higher education.

First Gallup asked people if they have confidence in colleges and universities. (The question did not specify two-year vs. four-year, public vs. private, etc.)

How Much Confidence Do You Have in Higher Education?

  Great Deal/Quite a Lot Some or Very Little
All 44% 56%
Republicans (or leaning) 33% 67%
Democrats (or leaning) 56% 43%

Then Gallup asked those with little or no confidence in higher education to identify reasons for their lack of confidence. Here Republicans focused on political issues and Democrats focused on more practical issues (such as paying for college). The question here was open-ended and Gallup grouped similar responses and provided the top answers.

What Are Some of the Reasons You Do Not Have a Lot of Confidence in Higher Education?

  Republicans (or leaning) Democrats (or leaning)
Too expensive 11% 36%
Too liberal/political 32% 1%
Not allowing students to think for themselves, pushing an agenda 21% 6%
Students not properly educated/education not relevant 13% 9%
Poor leadership/not well run 9% 14%
Graduates unable to find jobs 7% 10%
Overall quality is going down 4% 11%
Not focused on education/too much focus on sports 2% 5%
Poor quality of professors or other employees 4% 2%
Too easy to get an education/students don't take it seriously 3% 2%

Gallup also asked those with high confidence levels in higher education why they felt that way, again grouping together open-ended responses. The answers show that many Republicans seem to feel good about their own or their relatives' experiences in higher education, and that they are more likely than Democrats to believe that earning a college degree is essential for career success.

What Are Some Reasons Why You Have a Lot of Confidence in Colleges and Universities?

  Republicans (or leaning) Democrats (or leaning)
Personal experience/family member/myself enrolled or graduated/college employee 32% 24%
Higher education is essential to the country 16% 17%
Students are well trained/educated and doing a good job 12% 20%
U.S. colleges are advanced and among the best in the world 9% 10%
Need a degree to get better jobs/opportunities 15% 6%
Prepares students for real life/to get ahead 7% 9%
Teaches students to have an open mind/to appreciate other ideas/diversity 5% 7%
Good professors/instructors/administrators 2% 6%
Trains students to think for themselves 2% 5%

To be sure, some Republicans have long criticized higher education for being too liberal. Jesse Helms, the late senator who was long a hero to the far right, once said of plans for a zoo in North Carolina, "Why build a zoo when we can just put up a fence around Chapel Hill?" And bashing universities -- the University of California, Berkeley, or Harvard University, or the Ivy League generally -- has long been a part of Republican rhetoric.

But perhaps more quietly, support for much of higher education -- public and private -- has been bipartisan. Democrats might have been more generous with funding in some years, or more focused on low-income students. But Republicans have been strong proponents over time of building up universities' research capabilities. And support for community colleges and many regional institutions comes from lawmakers of both parties working to support local colleges.

In this context, the Pew and Gallup findings suggest a shift in attitudes in which Republicans have a much stronger aversion to the direction of higher education, which they see as too liberal. The questions asked in the Gallup study were so general (without any definition of "college") that many may not have thought of parts of higher education (community colleges, evangelical colleges or professionally oriented online programs) that look nothing like the residential liberal arts colleges that are mocked -- many times inaccurately -- in the conservative blogosphere on a daily basis.

An analysis released by Gallup, while not endorsing the views of the Republicans surveyed, says that their attitudes could have a significant impact on higher education.

"The effect of this divide on views of higher education -- a pivotal element of the American dream for so many -- raises questions about the future of higher education in this country," the Gallup analysis says. "To what degree will diminished confidence in higher education among Republicans lead to decreased public support and funding for colleges and universities? Or, will Republican families be less likely to send their children to traditional colleges and universities, and instead seek other ways to educate them? Will various colleges and universities begin to align their brands and curricula increasingly along party lines? Is there any hope that this partisan divide on views of higher education will diminish -- and if so, what would bring that about?"

Indeed, regardless of what one thinks of Republican attitudes, Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. Of particular relevance to public higher education, 34 of the nation's governors are Republicans.

Brandon H. Busteed, executive director for education and work-force development at Gallup, said in an interview that he thought it was important for colleges to think about their "marketing and communication messages" on a range of issues. For example, many competitive colleges consider race and ethnicity in admissions -- and polls suggest majorities of white voters favor the end of such forms of affirmative action.

Busteed said that colleges need to think about the way many critics of affirmative action believe that admissions are based on a pure academic meritocracy, except for minority students. He said colleges should talk about the edge in admissions enjoyed by athletes, children of alumni, people from some parts of the country, and many other groups. This information might change attitudes about affirmative action, he said.

He also said it's not likely to be enough for colleges to just assume that Republican attitudes are incorrect. Rather, colleges need to engage the discussion, he said. For example, many colleges bemoan that some prospective students and their families judge colleges by "sticker price" and don't take into account the aid offered by institutions. Colleges are relentless in encouraging people to think about college prices beyond sticker prices, he said. They need to be equally active on qualities -- real or not -- that make many Republicans think they are liberal.

On the theme of rebranding, Busteed published an essay Wednesday urging colleges to stop using the term "liberal arts."

"Putting the words liberal and arts together is a branding disaster, and the most effective way to save or defend the liberal arts may be to change what we call them. Note, the problem isn't with the substance of a liberal arts education but with the words we use to describe it," he wrote.

"Although there is certainly a difference between the meaning of a liberal arts education and being 'liberal' politically, it helps no one to fight to the death defending the term 'liberal arts' in the context of today's climate. Let's face it: other than people in higher education or liberal arts graduates themselves, who understands what the liberal arts are anyhow?" he added.

Busteed's essay will probably rankle more than a few liberal arts professors. But it may be worth considering that Republicans are not the only ones who are challenged by the term "liberal arts."

A 2015 study by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, professors of economics at Stanford University and the University of Virginia, respectively, asked academically talented, low-income high school students why they didn't apply to certain kinds of institutions. With regard to liberal arts colleges, the answers suggested a lack of knowledge of what they are. Among the responses they heard from students about why they weren't applying to liberal arts colleges:

  • “What is a private liberal arts college?”
  • “I don't know what this is.”
  • “I don't like learning useless things.”
  • “I am not liberal.”

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