Most Republicans Think Colleges Are Bad for the Country. Why?

July 10, 2017

Lisa Rathke, AP Images
Media portrayals of campus controversies, as when students shouted down Charles Murray at Middlebury College earlier this year, contribute to negative views of colleges among Republicans.

A majority of Republicans and right-leaning independents think higher education has a negative effect on the country, according to a new study released by the Pew Research Center on Monday. The same study has found a consistent increase in distrust of colleges and universities since 2010, when negative perceptions among Republicans was measured at 32 percent. That number now stands at 58 percent.

“The divides between folks on the left and folks on the right are getting more serious.”

By comparison, 72 percent of Democrats or left-leaning Independents in the study said colleges and universities have a positive impact on the United States.

In an increasingly polarized culture, the drastic shift is the latest piece of evidence that institutions of higher education — along with labor unions, banks, churches, and the news media — have been plunged headfirst into a hyperpartisan war.

That war started a long time ago, though it’s intensified lately. "The divides between folks on the left and folks on the right are getting more serious," said Neil L. Gross, a professor of sociology at Colby College and author of the book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? "I don’t think there’s any evidence that it’s going to subside anytime soon."

For years, higher education has been viewed favorably by liberals and less so by conservatives, Mr. Gross said, but political controversies in the past year have drawn attention and increased the negative perception. Protests and incidents of speakers being actively opposed or threatened by students are widely reported, he said, and are often one of the few ways in which the general population encounters college campuses.

"It’s not surprising how people hold onto publicly available narratives on college campuses," he said. "I think it’s understandable, though regrettable."

David Hopkins, an associate professor at Boston College and co-author of Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, said the negative view of colleges and universities is an expectable manifestation of this increase in coverage of college campuses. For instance, the website Campus Reform is a steady purveyor of perceived liberal bias on college campuses, and such controversies are often featured on the Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight.

"This has become a major subject of conservative coverage of contemporary politics and contemporary campus life," Mr. Hopkins said. "It’s no surprise an echo of that coverage would start to show up in public opinion on the right."

That reporting, Mr. Hopkins said, has only exacerbated an existing distrust of colleges and universities among conservative thinkers.

The conservative critique of the social sciences in the mid- and late-1900s, he said, has grown to include the hard sciences in the last 20 years, largely among subjects like stem-cell research, climate change, and evolution.

A change in the demographics of both parties has also influenced the mistrust of colleges, he said. Whereas 50 years ago, the best predictor of conservative alignment was a high level of education, Mr. Hopkins said, "the popular base of the Republican party is less and less white-collar professionals and is more and more white working-class non-college-educated voters." Whether or not someone had a college degree was considered by many observers to be the most compelling predictor of whether they voted Republican or Democrat in the last presidential election.

This change has given rise to a perception by conservatives of liberal elitism — an impression that can frame institutions of higher education as inherently partisan, according to Sean J. Westwood, an assistant professor of social science at Dartmouth College and a co-author of the recent study "Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization."

“Colleges are simply seen as a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology.”

"There is a perception that Democratic elites are well-educated and Republicans are more of the common man," Mr. Westwood said. "Colleges are simply seen as a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology."

In the Pew Research Center’s study, distrust of colleges was strongest in the highest income bracket and the oldest age group, with approval levels of just 31 percent among respondents whose family income exceeds $75,000 a year and 27 percent among those older than 65.

Favor for higher education was highest among Republicans who are younger than 29 (52 percent) and those who have not completed a college degree (37 percent).

Outside of party beliefs, Mr. Gross said, higher education is not a big part of an average person’s life. If that’s true, he said, then many of the answers given on such polls may not come from personal experience. "They’re very likely just filling in the blanks from their partisan knowledge and opinions," Mr. Gross said. "Part of what it means to be a conservative and a Republican is to voice opposition to liberal tendencies on college campuses."

"People are essentially taking cues from party leaders and conservative media," he said, "about opinions they are supposed to have."