Even in our divided times, there are a few things that the vast majority of Americans agree on. We believe that open and fair elections and the right to nonviolent protest, are crucial to democracy. We believe it’s important for the government to spend more money on the environment and on education.
But what about higher education? Until recently, it was a given that every American, regardless of their political or social views, understood the value of a college education and wanted their children to get a four-year degree, if possible. That’s not true anymore, as Republican and Democratic views on higher education are diverging. What is recent research revealing about shifting attitudes toward higher ed in a polarized America?
Republicans are more likely to think that colleges and universities are negatively affecting the country.
Is higher education a force for good in America? A majority of the public (55 percent) says colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the United States, but Republicans don’t feel the same way. Colleges are having a negative effect, say 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in a national survey conducted in June 2017 by Pew Research Center. It was the first time since 2010 when Pew began asking the question, that a majority of Republicans had that response. And the shift has been rapid — in 2015, 54 percent of Republicans thought higher ed had a positive effect on the country.
Younger Republicans’ views on higher education are more likely to be positive, however; a little more than half of those aged 18 to 29 say colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country.
What’s the cause of this sharp shift? Among many Republicans, “colleges are simply seen as a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology,” says 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.” Conservative media, such as the website Campus Reform, report on the perceived muzzling of conservative speakers and liberal leanings of college campuses.
Democrats are more likely to believe that a four-year college degree is worth the cost.
The numbers don’t lie: Even as tuition costs increase, a bachelor’s degree is well worth the investment. On average, a bachelor’s degree is worth $2.8 million over a lifetime, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Yet the perceived value of a college education is affected by a person’s political leanings, a 2017 poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found.
Among Democrats, 52 percent said a four-year degree is worth the cost, rising to 60 percent among those who voted for Hillary Clinton. Among Republicans, just 43 percent said it was worthwhile. White, working-class Americans and rural dwellers were least likely to say a college degree was worth the cost, while people with a bachelor’s or postgraduate degree were most likely to affirm its worth.
Republicans are more likely to choose an associate’s degree for their children over a bachelor’s degree — until they understand the benefits.
In a 2017 study conducted by EducationNext, parents were asked about their educational aspirations for their children. The results showed “sharply divergent views” between Democrats and Republicans on the merits of a four-year vs. a two-year degree. Among Democrats, 75 percent said they’d choose a bachelor’s for their children; 57 percent of Republicans would. However, nearly a third of Republicans said they’d like their children to get an associate’s degree, while only a sixth of Democrats would make that choice.
The reasons for the split are unclear. But something interesting happened when EducationNext first told respondents about the actual costs and monetary benefits of both types of degrees. When given that information, Democrats and Republicans fell into agreement: in both groups, 66 percent said they would like their child to pursue a bachelor’s.
“I find these results comforting,” wrote Paul E. Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a senior editor at EducationNext. “An associate’s degree is the right choice for some, while a bachelor’s program is the better option for others — but choices with respect to children’s education should be based on something other than political viewpoints.”