Why the College Degree Seems to Be Deciding the Presidential Election

October 12, 2016

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A stark divide in voter preferences has opened between people with college degrees and people without them. What’s going on?
If you’ve been following the presidential election campaign, then you’ve heard about the divide in voter preferences between people with and without college degrees.

A survey in August by the Pew Research Center found that, among registered voters with at least a college degree, the Democratic nominee, Hillary R. Clinton, had a 23-percentage-point lead over the Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump.

And polls indicate that Mr. Trump may be the first Republican nominee in 60 years to lose among white, college-educated voters.

What’s going on? Experts who study college attainment and political science agree it’s a hard question to answer, and resist making generalizations. But here’s a primer on other things to consider, as the campaign enters the home stretch, when presented with statistics that involve the 2016 presidential election and the college degree:

What’s a "college degree," anyway?

If a study doesn’t specify, the research usually refers to people who have four-year bachelor’s degrees, not those who attended some college but did not earn a degree, have associate degrees, or received job-training certificates, said Sandy Baum, a higher-education expert at the Urban Institute who also consulted on Mrs. Clinton’s college-affordability plan. If studies were tracking voters who had only two-year associate degrees or job-specific certificates, then the numbers would probably be different, she said.

Why is there such a marked difference in voting preferences between degree holders and non-degree holders?

John T. Scott, chairman of the political-science department at the University of California at Davis, said separating voters based on their college attainment, and noting a difference in their political views, is nothing new. "This is a continuation of a trend," Mr. Scott said. "Broadly speaking, what we are seeing is part of a trend that has been going on for probably about 20 years or more. And that has a lot to do with changes in the economy."

The recession of 1981 kicked off those economic shifts, said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. When high-school graduates who worked in manufacturing plants lost their jobs during that recession, many of their factory-based employers shut down altogether.

High-school graduates who were once able to sustain themselves in the middle class had nowhere to turn as the better-paying jobs went to more highly skilled college graduates, Mr. Carnevale said. And those laid-off workers form the group that Mr. Trump’s populist rhetoric appeals to the most.

For example, for many non-degree holders and working-class voters, Mrs. Clinton’s college-affordability plan doesn’t attract votes because it won’t change the numbers in their bank accounts, Mr. Carnevale said.

"You look at the [Bernie] Sanders voters, and the ones that Hillary is trying to pick up now, as the kids with families of somebody who went to college, or are ready to go to college and are looking and don’t want it," Mr. Carnevale said. "And then you look at the Trump people, and they are not about college. They are about the fact that we don’t have manufacturing jobs anymore."

Part of the divide may also be explained by a college education itself, Ms. Baum said. If a voter attends or has attended college, he or she may be more inclined to choose a candidate with logical policy solutions. "One of the critical differences," she said, "why Trump is different from other Republicans, is he’s really not interested in looking at the evidence and presenting logical arguments for things."

Some voters who cannot afford to go to college are not voting on issues like college affordability, but are supporting efforts to get more non-service jobs for high-school graduates back to their hometowns, Mr. Carnevale said. "People want higher education to be cheaper, faster, and better, and to connect them to employment," he said.

Is this trend here to stay?

With or without a college degree, voters don’t need to be exceptionally well informed to make up their minds, Mr. Scott said political-science research has found. So even if non-degree-holding voters aren’t exposed to whatever critical-thinking skills a college education brings, their decisions could be completely rational for their situation.

And voters do not act logically simply because they went to college, Mr. Scott said. Many voters who did attend can thank their affluent parents, their childhood stability, or other noncollege factors that could already inform their political preferences.

"The things he [Mr. Trump] says about the economy being weak, about the jobs having fled overseas, about we pay more taxes and feel less secure," Mr. Scott said. "I think those appeal to people. Because there’s a huge demographic, largely non-college-degree holders, that’s how they feel."

The economic divide between voters who do or don’t attend college may exacerbate that divide, said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst who focuses on higher education at Demos, a public-policy organization.

According to a 2015 study of earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with at least a bachelor’s degree have higher weekly earnings than do their non-degree-holding counterparts.

As college tuition continues to rise, bachelor’s degrees will become increasingly difficult for people in the working class and lower middle class to obtain, Mr. Huelsman said. "People who can achieve a four-year bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree, they are going to be facing pretty starkly different circumstances," he said. "And you can imagine that manifesting itself in our politics and in the voting booth."

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at