What’d we do wrong?

One of the typical surveys run by Pew Research Center is one asking about the impact of different institutions on America. Not surprisingly, there are differences between Republicans and Democrats in views on things like the media, churches and labor unions. But the latest iteration of this survey had a bit of a surprise: the partisan divide suddenly yawned open and swallowed higher education. Republicans have suddenly turned against higher education in the past two years, making the partisan divide on education (at 36%) greater than any other institution, including the much-maligned media.


In other words, seven years ago higher ed was thought to have a positive impact by 58% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats, and while that slowly diverged in the following 5 years, the big change was over the 2016 election cycle.

The news stories out of this suggest that this is a backlash against higher ed because of high tuition and debt or views that they are liberal strongholds. But really? All of that has been going on a long time.

There are a couple of possibilities here.  One is that the members of the 2015 GOP who liked colleges were so turned off by the Trump campaign that they aren’t identifying that way any more, while the GOP attracted less well educated members of the Democratic party. After all, one of the great divides in the presidential vote in 2016 was on education. But then you might expect a sharp rise in the favorability of college among Democrats, and that number barely moved.

Another notion in the media is that colleges got dinged for making headlines about intolerance directed at right-wing speakers. But most of that postdated the election and the sudden decline was far earlier. Although accusations that college students were “snowflakes” have certainly increased, college free speech has long been viewed as questionable in conservative eyes.

No, it seems it was something a lot more specific, and GG would like to suggest it was, ironically, the arguments within the Democratic party about making college free.

Before you argue that such a program might be beneficial for a lot of Trump supporters, keep in mind that many of them oppose other government programs that might help them.  Their objection, as often as not, is that you shouldn’t be a “taker.” Getting a free ride through college probably made college less of something you do for self-improvement and more of an entitlement.

Whatever the cause, this is not good for public institutions.  If bashing colleges is in vogue, tuitions will rise where GOP candidates are successful–and ironically, they will rise most at schools that right now are most affordable. Is it really in the national best interest to make college even more of an elitist institution?


3 responses to “What’d we do wrong?”

  1. Paul Braterman says :

    My own extremely pessimistic reading is that college education is connected with accepting evolution, questioning religion, and recognising the reality of human-caused climate change, all of which are seen as “liberal”, and that the distinguishing feature of the Trump campaign was that it legitimised the denial of reality. Slightly (?) less pessimistically, college education may also be seen as breeding contempt for “deplorables”, and the Trump campaign focused on the resentment that such an attitude, deservedly, inspires.


    • cjonescu says :

      I think the trump term for opponents were “nasty women” and “bad dudes”. “Deplorables” was from a Clinton speech. But yes, that is another point.


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