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The Political Divide Over Higher Education in America
Gallup Blog

The Political Divide Over Higher Education in America

by Brandon Busteed
Chart: data points are described in article

Republicans have soured on higher education.

Sixty-seven percent of Republicans in the U.S. have "some" to "very little confidence" in colleges and universities, according to a recent Gallup survey. And a 2017 Pew Research Center survey shows that 58% of Republicans say colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country. The latter represents a dramatic change from Pew's 2015 survey, when 37% said it was negative and 54% positive. In two years the majority of Republicans' attitudes toward higher education went from positive to negative.

The implications of this souring sentiment could be widespread across higher education, and many are left to wonder what the long-term impact of this perspective might be for the country.

In a recent interview on The Tavis Smiley Show on PBS, I discussed this political divide over higher education -- as well as other headwinds facing colleges and universities.

Republicans' Confidence Is Low Because of Perceived Politics, Agenda

The most important distinction in partisan explanations for attitudes toward U.S. colleges is on the negative side of the equation. Republicans are not only less confident than Democrats about colleges and universities in general, but the reasons Republicans give for these attitudes differ from those provided by the smaller group of Democrats who are negative.

Republicans with low levels of confidence in colleges are most likely to cite their belief that colleges and universities are too liberal and political, and also feel that colleges don't allow students to think for themselves and are pushing their own agendas. In short, Republicans with low confidence tend to see the world of higher education through distinctly political eyes.

By contrast, Democrats with low confidence in U.S. colleges are much more likely to cite issues dealing with practical aspects of higher education -- saying colleges are too expensive, are not well-run or have deteriorating quality.

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What This Means for Higher Education and the U.S.

Republicans' souring on higher education has happened in just the past two years. These events and trends have triggered a significant amount of news coverage, particularly in -- but hardly limited to -- conservative media: student protests over race relations and inequality, the ways in which campuses handled these protests, debates over free speech, and the blocking of controversial (and primarily conservative) speakers. The events, trends and coverage have heightened the perception that colleges and universities are "too liberal."

The implications of this collective conclusion are potentially devastating for higher education. The fallout could include fewer students (especially conservatives and children of conservative parents) enrolling in postsecondary education, students selecting institutions that are aligned with their political beliefs, reduced funding for higher education in conservative states, and more contentious debates about what should and shouldn't be taught on college campuses.

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