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The recent midterm elections highlighted the growing educational divide between voters as well as the increasing political polarization in the country—both of which are areas of concern for higher education but not ones that colleges and universities can address on their own.

An initial analysis of polling data from the midterm elections showed that 52 percent of voters with a bachelor’s degree cast their ballots for Democrats; 42 percent of those with a high school degree or less voted for Democrats, according to The Washington Post. In the 2018 election, the gap was about five percentage points.

Polling data from the American Council on Education showed a similar shift. In the 2016 election, 50 percent of voters with a college degree voted for Republicans while 48 percent voted for Democrats. Two years later, 43 percent voted for Republicans while 55 percent voted for Democrats. In 2022, about 46 percent voted for Republicans while 52 percent voted for Democrats.

“The changes in voting patterns are real,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations at ACE. “For most of the last century, people who went to college tended to vote for Republicans in national elections. People who did not go to college tended to vote for Democrats. We’ve seen this change fairly sharply within the last decade.”

Political polarization is a societal problem, but one that can deeply affect colleges and universities, particularly public institutions in red or purple states, Hartle said.

“It can affect their standing within the state,” he said, adding that polarization can affect the willingness of parents to send their children to certain institutions. “It can impact their reputation. It’s an incredibly delicate challenge for public sector presidents in those states.”

However, Hartle and other experts say colleges and universities can’t fix the issue of polarization on their own. But to counter it, those interviewed said, college and university leaders should focus on expanding access to higher education, think about the institution’s role in the surrounding communities and identify and focus on the fundamental values of their institution.

“So, you’re establishing a philosophical or intellectual position rather than trying to respond to every individual controversy as it comes up,” Hartle said. “I think what you will see are more and more presidents that will simply assert repeatedly in public that scientific truth matters, that academic freedom serves an important public purpose, and that all points of view can be expressed on a college or university campus. You’ll see presidents trying to define the core values of colleges and universities and refer to those. Waiting until the latest controversy overwhelms you probably does not serve people terribly well in the current environment.”

Holden Thorp, who was chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and provost at Washington University in St. Louis, said political polarization has meant that more topics or issues are considered by politicians on the right off limits for colleges and universities to talk about.

“You have climate change, abortion, guns and COVID,” he said. “None of which should be positions that we will be neutral on, because these are all things that can be analyzed by academics and for which there is an academic consensus. We have pretty strong consensus that access to abortion is good public health policy, that gun control would reduce the number of shooting deaths. COVID vaccinations are a good thing for everybody. But there are many college presidents who have been enjoined from saying these things.”

He said college and university presidents are either being explicitly censored from speaking out or censoring themselves out of fear of being fired. He thinks this climate is leading to more turnover for college leaders and longer executive searches.

“The only way you can lead them is through influence, and if the board is taking your voice away, then they are taking your influence away,” he said.

The politicization of higher education is not new, but Thorp said what has changed is the level of interest that the Republican Party has taken in dictating the activities of a university.

“That, I think, is just a symptom of the fact that it works well politically,” he said.

He doesn’t think that dynamic will change anytime soon.

“The reason I don’t is because the effectiveness of the talking point about higher education is so high right now,” he said. “But these things do come and go, so at some point, this won’t be the thing anymore. But it is right now, and as long as that’s true, and you have people going to political rallies and political fundraisers saying that they are going to straighten out the universities and they can raise money off of that, why would they stop?”

In the meantime, he encouraged college presidents to make sure they’re ready for a fight and to “give it all you got,” adding that he regretted the times that he equivocated on issues that he was passionate about.

“My advice would be that these jobs aren’t as precious as everybody thinks they are,” he said. “There’s lots of interesting things to do in the world. and being forced to be someone you’re not is not worth it.”

Policy Implications

Following the midterm elections, Republicans secured a narrow majority in the House of Representatives. Hartle said he won’t be surprised to see oversight hearings in the House focused on whether free speech is under threat on college campuses.

“A lot of Republicans believe that higher education does not do much to help their constituents and I think [that opinion] is increasingly reflected across the spectrum in American politics,” Hartle said. “‘Is X, Y or Z good for the people who elected me?’ They make responses based on what they happen to have heard, what they believe, what they think. That’s the environment we live in.”

Some House Republicans, including North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx, who will lead the House Committee on Education and Labor, hosted a roundtable discussion earlier this week on campus free speech concerns. Several lawmakers said in statements after the event that focusing on free speech on college campuses should be a priority for the next Congress.

“Unfortunately, too many colleges and universities now care more about creating conformity of thought instead of promoting freedom of thought,” Foxx said in a statement. “However, I was encouraged to hear from the brave students and others on the frontlines of this fight and I look forward to working with these free-speech warriors in the coming Congress.”

Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the right-leaning think tank the American Enterprise Institute, said higher education has not historically been a policy priority for the Republican Party, but Democratic-backed efforts related to federal student loans and higher education finance has put the issue at center stage. In the last few months, she has seen more Republican lawmakers interested in this area who wanted to take a stand.

“I think the fact that Democrats have advanced such progressive proposals to the mainstream of the conversation has really enabled Republicans who have had concerns about higher ed policy but just haven’t had the political moment to be able to move on it,” Akers said. “It’s really enabled them to come to the table, and I think that will lead to more proactive solutions coming from the Republicans.”

Despite the current division, Akers thinks there is a possibility for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to work together to bolster the safety net for students who make bad bets on college.

“People on both sides of the aisle just believe that if someone got a raw deal from college, they shouldn’t be stuck under that debt for the rest of their life,” she said. “It shouldn’t define their entire financial existence for the duration of their life. That’s kind of a low bar, but we do all agree on that.”

Still, she said there’s growing skepticism from lawmakers in both parties about what college is worth, which is something colleges and universities will have to counter.

“For a long time, we’ve held them on a pedestal of being above scrutiny, like these colleges are just sort of benevolent actors, and we don’t need to worry about them because they are looking out for the best interests of our students and our society. The reality is that’s not the case. There’re always bad actors. There’re always incompetent actors. I think that we’re starting to question where those weaknesses are in the higher ed sector.”

Students walking along a street at James Madison University in autumn.What Should Colleges Do About It?

For Jonathan Alger, president of James Madison University, grappling with the growing national mistrust in colleges and universities and the perception of higher education as out of touch starts at the local level—working with communities to address real-world challenges and ensuring that higher education is accessible to people from all backgrounds.

“I think that can help break down some of the polarization and barriers when you think about higher ed providing that kind of access to the American dream, because sometimes the perception is that higher education is actually reinforcing inequality rather than leveling the playing field and providing opportunity,” Alger said. “I think there’s some concrete things we need to be doing to be visibly addressing those barriers to higher education.”

For example, James Madison started a scholarship program for first-generation students in partnership with school districts in its region. Interested students apply as seventh graders and then receive support and enrichment opportunities through high school, admission to the university if they keep their grades up, and a full-tuition scholarship.

“It’s a huge, life-transforming opportunity, but what it does is it overcomes the sense that higher ed is only for a certain class of certain folks, and I think that kind of outreach with our community sends an important message,” he said.

James Madison’s Center for Civic Engagement hosts traveling town halls with candidates for state and local offices, as long as the candidates speak together, and works with student groups to host forums and debates. The center also creates a voter guide for students.

“Things like that—they may seem small, but they send a message to students that it’s possible that people can have different views and different opinions but still work together and interact and do it in a civil way,” Alger said.

Another way that colleges and universities can help to address increasing political polarization is by ensuring that campuses reflect the diversity of views and perspectives seen in broader society, he said.

“We don’t want to just be echo chambers where people only see and hear things that they agree with, because the purpose of a college education is to stretch your mind,” Alger said.

Part of that includes an intentional approach to teaching students the skills needed to engage in vigorous discourse, such as research, data literacy and active listening.

He added that the perception of higher education as an isolated ivory tower or site of liberal indoctrination is not reflective of the reality on his campus.

“There are thousands of opinions expressed every day from all across the spectrum,” he said. “This is a place where debate and discussion are constantly happening, whether that’s in student organizations or whether that’s in a classroom. But what happens is you’ll get some isolated tweets or social media that becomes the caricature of all of higher education.”

The university also started a lecture series that’s free and open to the community as a way to bring more people onto the campus and showcase a variety of perspectives, speakers and topics.

“The idea is for the community to come and see for themselves that higher education is not a monolith,” Alger said. “There are lots of thoughtful people who have different points of view and perspectives, but then you have to model how you have that civil discourse and dialogue in a respectful way. That’s part of what needs to happen in higher education as we need to be the beacon for society to show how this can be done.”

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