The College Degree Is Dividing America

With a passing phrase during a speech in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Donald Trump seemed to open a wide, new chasm among the American electorate.“I love the poorly educated,” then-candidate Trump said at a rally celebrating a victory over his rivals in the Nevada caucuses. The candidate was, at the time, enumerating some of the voting blocs that were paving his path to the nomination.That simple sound bite signaled a clear connection between education levels and political affiliation rarely articulated so explicitly by a presidential candidate.

Everything falls along partisan lines now.

Less-educated white voters embraced Trump’s particular brand of populism through both the primary and general elections. The opposite was also true; unlike in most past elections, a majority of white voters with higher levels of education favored Democrats in 2016. Polling this election cycle shows an even greater percentage of college-educated voters supporting the Democratic nominee Joe Biden.The Trump era may foreshadow a deep and enduring schism between those who have a college credential and those who do not, especially if the president wins re-election on Tuesday. What would that mean for the future of higher education?Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, says conservative criticism of higher education is nothing new. But the president has taken it to a new extreme, seeking to undermine confidence not only in institutions but also to discredit individuals because of their academic expertise.“Conservatives across the decades always found reason to be grumpy about the generally liberalizing effects of a college education,” McGuire said in an email. “The Trump era has raised the stakes considerably.” The president has spent his first term “trashing advanced knowledge, from denying climate science to dismissing Dr. Fauci and other learned epidemiologists as ‘idiots,’” she wrote.Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University and the former Republican governor of Indiana, blames some in academe who, he says, have too long looked down their noses at those without credentials. “I’ve been troubled for quite some time about the very manifest drifting apart of Americans along educational lines.” Regardless of whose fault it is, Daniels and McGuire agree, a rift between voters based on the college degree would mean declining support for higher education among both the electorate and lawmakers, at a time when colleges face historic challenges from the pandemic and the coming enrollment cliff.Like so many other facets of civic life in the United States, views of higher education have fractured along partisan lines. But it hasn’t always been such a controversial issue.As recently as 2015, a majority of people from both parties had a positive view of colleges, according to polling from the Pew Research Center. But the following year, only 43 percent of Republicans held that view, compared with 72 percent of Democrats.More recent polling has shown that a majority of respondents from both parties have concerns about the price of a college degree. Conservatives, however, are more concerned about professors introducing their political and social views in the classroom.In the early 20th century, the GOP was the party of the wealthy, who were more likely to attend college, said David N. Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, while Democrats were the party of labor and wage earners. That began to change, he said, when the baby boomers flocked to college campuses, from mostly blue-collar backgrounds.The culture wars that followed began the conservative political backlash against higher education, Smith said, but the current political climate has put the college degree at the center of the discourse in a new way.“There’s no question that having a college degree has emerged as a bright dividing line,” he said, but it’s been used to create a stereotypical image. At the same time, the term “working class,” used as a rallying cry by Trump and his supporters, has been narrowed to mean only people without college degrees, rather than everyone who works for wages.The president has shown very little interest in higher-education policy, broadly speaking, but he and other administration officials have acted on and amplified some of conservatives’ most common concerns about colleges.Since the beginning of his term, Trump and other administration officials have threatened to take away federal funding for colleges over free-speech disputes, moved to limit enrollment of international students, and investigated colleges for alleged bias in admissions against Asian Americans, among other things.At the same time, the administration’s rhetoric “fuels a perception that is popular in some quarters that a college education inculcates ‘liberal’ ideas that translate into political affiliations,” McGuire said in her email.For example, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told a 2017 Conservative Political Action Committee conference that liberal college faculty were trying to indoctrinate students and tell them “what to do, what to say and, more ominously, what to think.”But this is an oversimplification. The divide between those who have college degrees and those who don’t may not be as deep as polling would suggest, said several scholars, and college faculty have far less power to change students’ political views than many believe.Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, said the split among voters of different education levels is limited largely to Caucasians. “What we’re really talking about there is the split in white voters,” he said. Regardless of their education levels, Black voters, Jeffries said, vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Trump’s attacks on higher education and the highly educated, Jeffries said, create a scapegoat for white voters who feel they have been left behind by the economy and can’t afford a college degree. “Education becomes politicized because education becomes the enemy to the white working class,” he said.The perception doesn’t reflect reality, Jeffries said, “but it’s potent and it’s flexible. Conservatives will rally behind a conservative appointee from Yale in a heartbeat; that lets you know it’s the politics, but it should not be a wedge.”Katherine S. Conway-Turner, president of the State University of New York College at Buffalo, said higher education challenges students’ beliefs, but campuses are far less political than is typically portrayed.“Something very special happens in college communities” that’s different from the partisan disputes so common in politics, she said. “If you’re outside of higher education, you might not see this,” Conway-Turner said.Even some conservative thinkers within higher education are skeptical that the campus turns otherwise-conservative students into liberals. Jonathan Marks, a professor of politics and chairman of the department of politics and international relations at Ursinus College, is the author of the forthcoming book Let’s Be Reasonable, which “presents the case for why, now more than ever, conservatives must not give up on higher education.”While faculty are overwhelmingly left-leaning, the political climate still varies widely by campus, Marks said in an email, and students are very capable of finding one that fits their views. Polling by College Pulse found that Trump’s approval rating is above 50 percent at Clemson, Marks wrote, while the president gets just a 7-percent approval at Brown University.In addition, Marks said, the shift in college-educated voters from Republicans to Democrats has largely occurred during Trump’s time as a candidate and president.“It’s true that polls suggest a big shift in the white, college-educated vote in 2020,” Marks said, “but if Betsy DeVos wants to blame liberal professors for this, she’ll need to explain why the shift is so recent. Romney won this group easily in 2012.”“Liberal classroom indoctrination — much less successful liberal classroom indoctrination that could explain a shift between support for Romney in 2012 and support for Trump in 2016 and 2020 — is an overblown, undersourced explanation for the views of college graduates.”Perception, even when it doesn’t reflect reality, still matters — especially in a political climate fueled by the president’s frequent falsehoods, hyperbolic and dangerous allegations, and refusal to disavow conspiracy theories and white supremacists.If politicians and large portions of the public believe that colleges are simply factories that produce liberal voters, then higher education could see an even greater erosion of support from elected Republicans and their supporters.“Everything falls along partisan lines now,” said Adam Gismondi, director of impact at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University. “We are cutting out half of the applicants for college if Republicans decide college doesn’t have value.”Without the support of Republicans in statehouses, higher education is unlikely to see any greater budget support. Conservative philanthropists may look for other places to donate their money.“The perception among Republicans is that higher education has lost its trust,” said Phillip W. Magness, a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, a think tank that leans right.“It’s going to make the typical Republican voters ask questions about whether they should fund higher education,” he said.Aligning solely with Democrats doesn’t necessarily ensure that higher education gets an easy pass from that party either, said McGuire, of Trinity Washington University. Politicians in both parties blame higher education for being inefficient and unproductive, she said.

If you look down your nose long enough at people, eventually they will punch you in it.

“Does the fact that the Trump years have ostensibly pushed higher education even farther to the left mean that our ‘liberal’ enterprise will have better friends and greater support in a Biden administration? Possibly not. Those who forget the regulatory frenzy of the Obama years will be shocked to realize that we could be heading for a repeat scenario.”Daniels, of Purdue, said that without support from both sides of the political divide, higher education can expect Republicans to enact more of the kinds of actions that have been taken by the Trump administration.“The cost of it all has gotten out of the reach of people of more modest means,” Daniels said, and there is a “profound sense” that academics are looking down on the less educated. “If you look down your nose long enough at people, eventually they will punch you in it,” he said.“My point is, the things this administration has done or tried to do, to me these are consequences, not causes,” he said.Still, whatever political traction the president gets by railing against higher education, it is unlikely that most conservatives would abandon colleges altogether. Surveys from New America have found that, while many say they are unhappy with “higher education,” they support their local college and acknowledge that a college credential is important for finding a good job.Employers still rely heavily on the college credential as a signal, at least, of job preparation, with surveys showing that they prize the kinds of thinking emphasized in the liberal arts. In addition to the individual economic benefits of a degree, many colleges in rural areas are major employers for the region — one reason politicians of both stripes find it impossible to close public colleges in such areas.If Republicans reject higher education on a larger scale, the party and its supporters could find themselves more isolated culturally, economically, and politically, especially if the party membership continues to trend more white and male.The Democratic electorate, as well as the demographics in higher education, looks more like the emerging demographics of the country, which will include a majority of nonwhite residents, said Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, a historically Black college. “The backlash is, ‘I don’t see myself in those kids, I don’t connect with that part of America, that’s not me,’” said Kimbrough.Jeffries, the history professor at Ohio State, says that demonizing higher education and college-educated voters may work for the GOP in the short term but cause real and lasting damage to the nation from “the assault on knowledge and truth.”“The burden of the calculation is on the Republican Party,” he said. “Is this a winning formula? Is denouncing higher education a winning formula?”

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