Political Divide Over Colleges' Fall Reopenings

October 28, 2020

The American public is divided over just about everything -- so why wouldn't it be divided over whether colleges and universities should have brought students back to their physical campuses this fall?

A survey released by the Pew Research Center this week finds Americans split down the middle on the question of whether colleges that are providing "in-person instruction did/did not make the right decision bringing students back to campus this fall."

Fifty percent of those surveyed by Pew said colleges made the right call -- while 48 percent said they did not. But as will probably surprise no one, the proportions look very different by political party. Almost three-quarters of Republicans (74 percent) said that colleges and universities that opened their campuses for in-person instruction made the right decision, while more than two-thirds of Democrats (68 percent) said the institutions were wrong to open.

The survey also sought respondents' views about the validity of online education, which many students are encountering even if they are physically on campus this fall. Asked whether a course taken only online provides equal educational value (or not) to a course taken in a classroom, fewer than one in three Americans (30 percent) says it does -- while 68 percent say online courses are inferior. Respondents with a bachelor's degree were most likely (75 percent) to say an online course doesn't measure up, compared to 64 percent of those with a high school diploma or less.

And Americans continue to be deeply divided about the state of higher education generally (though nobody is all that happy with it). A majority of respondents to the Pew poll (56 percent) said that the U.S. higher education system is going in the wrong direction, while 41 percent said it is going in the right direction. While half of Democrats (49 percent) say higher education is going in the right direction and the same proportion say it's heading in the wrong direction, a full two-thirds of Republicans (66 percent) say it’s going in the wrong direction.

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