Republicans Don’t Hate Higher Education

While the majority of Republicans may believe colleges have a negative impact on America, they probably don’t feel that way about their alma maters or intercollegiate sports teams, writes Christopher R. Marsicano.

July 13, 2017
 
iStock/Bubaone
 

Despite what you may have heard, Republicans don’t actually hate colleges and universities. A recent Pew Research Center poll does show that 58 percent of Republicans believe higher education institutions have a negative impact on the way things are going in the country, but that is no cause for alarm. In fact, Republicans love colleges and universities -- just like they love their members of the U.S. Congress.

There is a phenomenon with congressional voting. The majority of voters disapprove of Congress -- in fact, congressional approval continues to hit all-time lows. Yet representatives and senators continue to be re-elected. Why? Some people argue gerrymandering protects incumbents. Incumbents also get a major advantage in fund-raising and name recognition. But there’s also a much simpler explanation: people tend to hate Congress but love their representative. While only about 10 to 15 percent of voters approve of the job Congress is doing, almost half approve of their own representatives. Voters want to throw the bums out -- they just don’t see their own senators and representatives as bums.

We may be seeing the same phenomenon among Republicans in this new Pew poll. While 58 percent of Republicans believe colleges and universities have a negative impact on the direction of the United States, I sincerely doubt they feel the same way about their alma maters, their public flagship institutions, the university hospital where their children were born and especially their chosen intercollegiate basketball and football teams.

We actually have compelling evidence for the last of those allegiances. Public Policy Polling is a left-leaning polling organization based in North Carolina. Despite that partisan leaning, PPP is considered among the more accurate polling agencies in the business and does an annual culture survey in the state. The most recent survey, taken in January 2017, asked questions about sports, food and many more topics. And it provides some interesting insights into this particular issue.

The survey found that around 73 percent of all North Carolina voters expressed a team preference among the colleges and universities in the state. About a third support the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Tar Heels, with close to 20 percent supporting their archrival Duke Blue Devils, 16 percent supporting the Wolfpack of North Carolina State University and 5 percent cheering for Wake Forest’s Demon Deacons. It isn’t surprising that the vast majority of people in North Carolina would support the state’s major-conference athletics teams. What is surprising, given what the Pew poll would tell have us believe, is that support for each team transcends political divides.

PPP also asked people for whom they voted in the 2016 election. More Clinton voters than Trump voters professed an allegiance to college sports teams in the state; around 78 percent of surveyed Clinton voters and 66 percent of Trump voters support one of those four teams. Yet, of the remaining 34 percent of unaffiliated Trump voters, it is hard to imagine that at least some of them won’t be cheering for East Carolina University or Appalachian State University during football season. And regardless, two-thirds of Trump voters support at least one college or university in a state that has recently become known for a caustic political atmosphere.

Athletic events are some of the most high-profile showcases of colleges and universities. In North Carolina, National Collegiate Athletic Association sports and politics go hand in hand. In March, the NCAA delivered a 48-hour ultimatum to the state’s General Assembly: repeal the now-infamous HB2 bathroom bill, or it would ban North Carolina sites from holding championship events. The bill was repealed within that two-day period, with many observers arguing that college basketball was the reason for a swift repeal after two years of combative political posturing.

That said, colleges and universities are not equivalent to their athletics teams. It is possible for someone to have an allegiance to a college athletic team while also having a negative view of the institution. How do voters feel about the institutions themselves? Chapel Hill has had several run-ins with the state’s Republicans. The right-leaning Board of Directors of UNC replaced President Tom Ross with George W. Bush’s secretary of education Margaret Spellings and closed some research centers on Chapel Hill’s campus perceived to be left leaning. One might expect those events to be demonstrative of an anti-UNC sentiment among the Republican Party in North Carolina.

PPP’s culture poll, however, shows us that is not the case. The 2015 edition asked North Carolinians whether they thought the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was one of the best public institutions in the country. When given the options of “the best,” “not the best” and “not sure,” almost six in 10 voters -- and half of all Republican voters -- believed UNC to be one of the best public universities in the country. Excluding those voters who answered “not sure,” 75 percent of those polled and 65 percent of Republicans said they believed the university to be among the nation’s best. That puts approval of the University of North Carolina among Tar Heel State Republicans at a level similar to their support for the state’s Republican U.S. senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis and its Republican Legislature. While being the best and having a negative impact are not entirely mutually exclusive, it is hard to believe that Republican voters both think their home institution is one of the best in the country and has a negative impact in the country. Who would want to be the best at being the worst?

So Republicans probably don’t think every college and university has a negative impact on where society is going. However, people might have a negative view of the postsecondary sector for many legitimate reasons. A Time poll in 2012 found that 54 percent of Americans thought higher education was on the wrong track. As many as 80 percent said college isn’t worth what people pay for it. Two years ago, a YouGov poll showed around 62 percent of Americans believe that no student should have to borrow to pay tuition at a public school. Such findings tell us that people are apprehensive about the cost of college. Stories of increasing college debt make people of all political persuasions wary -- especially Republicans. Yet the majority of young adults still think college is worth the cost.

College and university administrators shouldn’t lament the fact that the Pew poll shows a negative attitude toward colleges and universities. At the same time, they shouldn’t discount the findings and certainly shouldn’t write off Republicans as not understanding the important role higher education plays for both liberal and conservative sectors of society. Instead, they should ask why that is the case and use the Pew finding along with others to instruct how they should interact with people of all political stripes.

Regardless of their politics, people have an affinity -- maybe even a love -- for at least one college or university. They want to believe it is one of the best around. They want it to cost less, but they think attending is worth it. That’s the same message higher education leaders have received for years.

Now colleges and universities must engage with the public and show what they are doing to be the best higher education institutions possible. They should show how they plan to contain costs, or at least justify tuition and fee raises. They should remind people that the same university that won the NCAA basketball championship this year also generated 100,000 jobs for the state of North Carolina while making breakthroughs in HIV prevention and autism research. Postsecondary institutions have to remind those who don’t trust them that the Carolina blue and white (or whatever colored) uniforms they love so much are part of a great college or university -- one that objectively makes the United States a better place.

Bio

Christopher R. Marsicano is a Ph.D. candidate in leadership and policy studies with a focus on higher education policy at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. He studies politics and public opinion in higher education. It pains him, as an alumnus of both Davidson College and Duke University, to see so much popular support for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.

 

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