Survey Shows Major Decline in Republicans’ Confidence in Higher Education

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The Pew Research Center released results last week from a June survey revealing that 58 percent of Republicans believe that U.S. colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country. The numbers reveal a significant decline in Republican confidence in U.S. higher education over the last two years; in 2015, 37 percent of Republicans reported having negative views of colleges and universities.

Conversely, the poll, which assessed partisan viewpoints on other national institutions such as banks, churches, and the news media, found that 72 percent of Democrats believe colleges and universities have “a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.” While the survey’s findings indicate that the majority of all Americans (55 percent) view higher education favorably, the results also reveal a growing partisan divide. The gap between Democrats’ and Republicans’ views on higher education was larger than that for any other category — including the news media, which has an overwhelmingly negative reputation.

To explain the deteriorating Republican outlook on postsecondary education, some analysts, like the Washington Post’s Philip Bump, have cited the “culture war” between conservative ideology and the rise of identity politics on college campuses. Similarly, The Atlantic’s David Graham argues that conservative media’s heavy focus on “campus protests, free-speech clashes, and debates over whether offering ethnic food in dining halls is cultural appropriation,” for example, has played a role in conservative backlash against liberal campus politics. At the same time, however, Graham points to a Republican platform that prioritizes blue collar jobs over higher education — at a time when tuition continues to rise and enrollment is dropping — as evidence of increasing disdain for what conservatives have long seen as the cultural and economic elitism of higher education.

Among Republicans, however, views of higher education vary based on demographics. Those with less education and lower incomes tend to view college more favorably than their more educated, wealthier peers; 46 percent of Republicans earning $30,000 or less a year view higher education favorably, compared to just 31 percent of Republicans earning $75,000 or more, according to the Pew Research Center poll. Similarly, Republicans with some or no college education are actually 5 percent more likely to have a positive opinion of colleges and universities than those with four-year degrees. The biggest difference, however, is based on age, with 52 percent of conservatives between 18 and 29 having positive views of U.S. higher education compared to just 27 percent of those 65 or older.

Across every Republican subset, the number of those who view college favorably has decreased by at least 10 percent since 2015, indicating that six out of 10 Republican voters now believe that institutions of higher education do the country more harm than good.