A new study from Pew shows that a majority of Republicans—58%—believe that “colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country,” a number that jumped 13 points from 45% last year. What is driving Republican voters’ increasingly negative opinions of American higher education?
At The Federalist, Gracy Olmstead identifies three factors that have contributed to such dismal numbers: “campus protests, a growing PC culture, and catastrophic student debt.” These issues, Olmstead writes, have created “a considerable chasm in the perceptions of higher education between Republicans and Democrats.”
Olmstead points to “recent events at universities like Middlebury College or the Naval Academy,” where “student (and staff) protestors have…refused to listen to speakers they disagree with—sometimes turning violent in the process.” Conservatives are subsequently frustrated with “a campus culture that quashes free speech, open discussion, and public discourse. They’re impatient with the intolerant tolerance that demands only specific ideas or thoughts be expressed openly, and all others be rejected.”
The perception of a “growing liberal bias” on campus also drives negative reactions from conservatives. Olmstead notes one college class which “promised to offer students an opportunity to ‘discuss, and possibly engage in, strategies for resistance’ to [President] Trump’s ‘sexism, white supremacy, xenophobia, nativism, and imperialism.'”
It’s also true that current Republican attitudes toward higher education could be influenced by the widespread populism (and, correspondingly, anti-elitism) of the moment. Donald Trump’s election suggested a dissatisfaction with the actions and processes of the insiders and expert class, the coastal elites who—at least per widespread public perception—“run the show.” Trump campaigned on promises to “drain the swamp,” assuring voters that his business acumen would offer them something different, something more approachable and tied to their wellbeing than the actions and policies of the intellectual elites.
Of course, not all Republicans believed Trump’s promises. Many were (and are) dissatisfied with the results of the 2016 presidential election. But even among those who dislike Trump, I’ve seen a widespread defensiveness of the small-town voter and blue-collar worker amongst GOP voters after November 2016. Many of these voters dislike the snobbish disdain they often sense from progressive (and even conservative) elites towards the common folk.
For some, this resentment has built into an anti-intellectualism that can reveal itself in a corresponding wariness of higher education. Many of these people have experienced a dependability, loyalty, and experiential common sense amongst the uneducated—the self-taught, the entrepreneurial, the hard-working blue-collar class—that they haven’t experienced amongst the nation’s elites.
Olmstead also notes the negative optics due to the fact that
many students may be able to engage in some sort of thoughtful discourse about literature or the arts, but are unable to pay their bills on time or make meals from scratch. College taught them to be cerebral, but it didn’t teach them “adulting”: the basic skills they need for survival. Millennials have increasingly used this word (to the detriment of their image in public perception) to describe the most basic of real-world activities—such as working a 9 to 5 job, doing laundry, and buying vegetables.
In this sense, the cost-benefit analysis of college falls very short in the opinion of many conservatives, some of whom likely have recently hired or worked with recent college grads. Colleges and universities have fallen far short of providing their students with two basic things: first, the skills they need to succeed in the world at large, and second, the financial independence they need to survive in a troubled economy.
“We need to understand the implications of an academic system that’s broken in many ways,” Olmstead writes. “And we should try to fix its problems: by determining ways to lessen the burden of student loans…and by equipping students to navigate the difficulties of adulthood—not just by helping them cultivate practical life skills, but also by helping them confront and engage with difficult (even controversial) ideas and concepts.”