The Pew Research Center recently polled Americans about their views on some major societal institutions, and much of the results were predictable. Respondents still feel pretty good about churches and other religious organizations (59 percent view them positively) and pretty bad about the national news media (63 percent see them negatively, which was one of the strongest and broadest views recorded in the survey). But there was one surprise in the study, and it represents a significant shift in attitude: Republicans surveyed have a negative impression of the nation’s colleges and universities.
Two years ago, a similar survey by Pew found that 54 percent of Republicans viewed American higher education positively, while 37 percent said they had a negative impact. The poll conducted in mid-June practically reversed the numbers with 58 percent of Republicans saying colleges and universities have had a negative impact on the United States and just 36 percent identifying it as positive. That’s a stunning result and not at all shared by Democrats, who have only seen college favorably during this decade, rising from 65 percent approval in 2010 to 72 percent last month.
So when did higher education become a partisan affair? Part of the trend is surely the growing education gap. In short, Democrats are more likely to be college educated with 53 percent having a four-year degree or better compared to 41 percent of Republican, according to the most recent Pew research. That, too, is a change from years past. It was 49 percent to 45 percent advantage for the GOP in 1992. But that shift in demographics has been modest and incremental, the negative view of higher education by the Party of Lincoln overall has been much more abrupt and dramatic.
Why? Clearly, it’s because of some incidents on campuses that have enraged conservatives who generally lump them under the heading, “acts of political correctness.” Then add to the mix the drumbeat of criticism of these episodes by Donald Trump, and just about anybody who is a regular on Fox News or Breitbart or similar “safe spaces” for conservative outrage. Often, it’s a right-leaning politician or celebrity facing protests on campus, sometimes it’s a professor’s criticism of a conservative cause or icon. There’s no question that occasionally schools make mistakes (and it’s also clear that campuses are often politically left-leaning which is hardly a recent development), but deciding that the nation’s universities are having a negative impact on society because once in a while a campus protest goes too far or the “trigger warnings” strike most adults as infantile coddling is just as out-of-scale as the incidents themselves.
Put any group of 18-to-22 year olds together and you’re bound to unleash some poor judgment. That’s nothing new. For every incident where a student is sharply criticized by his or her peers for spouting conservative dogma you can bet there’s ten thousand or more incidents where the same thing is said and nobody gives a darn. Everyday academic freedom doesn’t make the nightly news — or the fake news, for that matter — the much more rare “man-bites-dog” cases of persecution do. Sadly, the less people are exposed to actual colleges, the more likely they are to see them as group-think liberalism run amok, as their critics claim. Colleges and universities make easy targets if their critics don’t spend much time on campus, and don’t see the cutting-edge research, the continued devotion to thinking and learning in the classroom, the sacrifices made by students who juggle work study and off-campus jobs with their studies.
This would all be nothing more than a curiosity, another sign of our increasingly partisan divide, except there’s a real danger here. Over the last quarter century, the federal government and states have been offering less and less financial support for postsecondary education on a per capita basis, a diminishment made worse by the last recession. State support for higher education is about one-fourth what it is for K-12. The result has been an increasing reliance by colleges and universities on tuition to foot the bills. That’s not a problem for the wealthiest Americans, but it’s threatening to close the door on upward mobility for those who come from less affluent households. It’s also one of the drivers behind the student loan crisis ($1.4 trillion and counting) which is threatening to cripple the U.S. economy in the near-future.
Lawmakers from Augusta to Sacramento are going to have difficulty mustering greater support for our institutions of higher learning if half the country finds them distasteful. And in a knowledge-based economy, the lessening of American universities threatens our global competitiveness. This is a culture war that can only produce losers.
This editorial appeared in The Baltimore Sun on Thursday, July 13, 2017.