Quick Thoughts on Republican Dislike for Higher Education

Further evidence of polarization in America: a recent Pew survey finding sharp partisan splits in how Americans view institutions’ impact on the country. It’s worth digging into the full report, but here’s a summary:

Type of Institution

Overall % with Positive View

Republicans and Lean GOP %

Democrats and Lean Dem. %

Churches and religious organizations




Colleges and universities




Labor unions




Banks and financial institutions




National news media




Of course, people in my line of work were especially disturbed by the higher ed result. Not only is that the category where there’s the biggest gap between political parties, but the change on the Republican side has been especially rapid. In 2015 a majority of Republicans and right-leaning independents still thought colleges had a positive impact on the United States; in just two years, that number has plummeted over 20 points. (Last year the negative had already overtaken the positive number by a couple points.)

Now, the survey doesn’t tell us why Republicans have so suddenly come to such a low opinion of higher education. And it’s notable that Republicans closest to college age (52% of 18-29 year olds) are almost twice as likely to see colleges’ impact as positive as those furthest removed from that time of life (27% of 65+).

But the numbers alone are troubling enough to inspire a few quick thoughts:

1. Don’t dismiss the results out of hand

On social media I’ve seen left-leaning academic colleagues respond derisively to the Republicans surveyed. I’m certainly bothered that such a large, important segment of the American public can’t seem to see the good that higher education accomplishes, but I can’t dismiss those negative views out of hand.

Pew Research Center logoFirst, it’s possible that such opinions do stem from legitimate grievances shaped by personal experience. After all, Republicans in the Pew survey were actually slightly less likely to have a positive view of college if they were college grads themselves (33%, vs. 37% among those without college degrees).

More importantly, it’s not just Republicans who are dissatisfied with colleges and universities. Earlier this year, New America released a survey with mixed results for higher ed: while 79% of respondents thought that most people benefited from college, only a quarter thought higher ed was functioning well. In September 2016, a Public Agenda survey found that only 42% of Americans believe a college degree is necessary for workforce success, and 46% thought that it was a questionable investment. So I hope that academics take seriously critiques by thoughtful conservatives like Gracy Olmstead, who defended “classical liberal arts degrees” but articulated concerns about everything from threats to free speech to the growth of student debt.

2. Higher education as a political battleground

Now, it’s also very likely that the sharp drop in Republican opinion here reflects the influence of news media and politicians who sensationalize isolated instances of threatened speech or present dire statistics out of context (e.g., failing to point out that it was for-profit institutions that drove the recent spike in student loan defaults, a fact denied by several Republican lawmakers).

But even to the extent that Republican antipathy to higher ed is rooted in profound misunderstanding, it needs to be taken seriously. Beyond the effects of the Trump Administration on higher ed, the GOP has a two-to-one edge in the state governments that determine much of the budget for most public institutions of higher learning — and may even attempt to regulate campus culture and faculty hiring.

One way or another, those of us who value higher education need to make its case more effectively — to Republican lawmakers, but also to the voters who determine their fates.

3. What role for Christian colleges?

Finally, I’m struck by this result from the Pew survey: Republicans are twice as likely to take a positive view of churches and religious organizations as of colleges and universities. For many on the left, I’m sure this will just bolster the assumption that Christians are anti-intellectuals. But it also suggests an interesting situation for those of us who work for Christian colleges and universities.

Bethel University: Community Life Center and Benson Great Hall
The Community Life Center and Benson Great Hall at Bethel University

Here again, the data yields more questions than answers. Do Republicans have a higher view of private religious colleges than other institutions of higher learning? Or do they increasingly view institutions like my employer with the same skepticism they afford secular colleges and universities?

But as a perennially hopeful kind of guy, I still think that Christian higher ed can serve as a bridge stretching across the growing chasm between church and academy. If only among our students, alumni, and other constituents who are Republican or lean that direction, can Christian college faculty and staff persuade them of the value of the liberal arts, scientific inquiry, and the life of the mind?

Maybe not. There are days I’m not sure enough higher ed professionals share those values. And as I’ll explain next week, I’m struggling with how to be persuasive at all in a time such as ours.

One thought on “Quick Thoughts on Republican Dislike for Higher Education

Comments are closed.