Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Study Shows Sharp Drop in Republican Support for Higher Ed

Views toward higher education have become increasingly more partisan over the past couple of years, a new survey by the Pew Research Center shows.

The national survey, conducted in early June among 2,504 adults, showed that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe colleges have a negative effect on the country, compared to 19 percent for Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

This is a sharp increase from even recent numbers, which had shown more faith in the higher education system from the Republican party. In September of 2015, when Republicans were polled on the same question, only 37 percent said they distrusted of colleges and universities. At that time, the number of Republicans who approved of higher education was almost as high as the amount who disprove in 2017: 54 percent.

The more conservative a person identifies politically, the more they distrust higher education institutions, the numbers show. “Nearly two-thirds of conservative Republicans (65 percent) say colleges are having a negative impact, compared with just 43 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans,” according to the Pew Research Center.

A Partisan Divide

So why the big divide? Reporter Paul Fein of Inside Higher Ed suggests  that the media sources Americans turn to for information may play a role.

“Virtually every day Fox News, Breitbartand other conservative outlets run critical articles about free speech disputes on college campuses, typically with coverage focused on the perceived liberal orthodoxy and political correctness in higher education,” he writes.

Fein points to Breitbart’s reporting on declining enrollment at the University of Missouri at Columbia, after racially charged protests broke out on campus, which quoted young, white conservatives and their aversion to applying to the school for fear of being labeled bigoted.

Stories coming out of higher education tend to paint campuses as less hospitable to conservative ideas. In 2014, the Higher Education Research Institute found 60 percent of professors identified as liberal or far-left, compared to 42 percent in 1990.

Conservative commentators such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulus have recently been threatened with violence, greeted with protests or ultimately uninvited from speaking at campuses.

Changing Demographics

The Chronicle of Higher Education cited one expert who points to the changing demographics of both major political parties as an indicator for why views have changed. David Hopkins, an associate professor at Boston College and the coauthor of “Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats,” told the Chroniclethat 50 years ago, conservatives were more aligned with the image of a white-collar businessman, but that this image has increasingly been dwarfed by that of “white working-class non-college-educated voters.”

Having a college degree used to align with more conservative voting patterns, but the 2016 election saw this trend flip on its head when President Donald Trump became the first Republican nominee in 60 years to lose favor with white, college-educated voters.

Philip Bump writes for The Washington Post that a recent focus by the conservative media on topics such as “safe spaces” on college campuses has increased the perception that colleges are, essentially, one large safe space for liberals to exclude conservative viewpoints.