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The Politics of College: Americans Sharply Divided on Higher Ed

“Too much of a good thing” isn’t usually an argument applied to education. But a recent Gallup survey found a sharp partisan divide in how Americans view higher ed, with just a third of Republicans confidant in U.S. colleges.

The reason why? Politics.

Those Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who make up the other two-thirds “are most likely to cite their belief that colleges and universities are too liberal and political.”

The survey also found that these respondents believe colleges “don’t allow students to think for themselves and are pushing their own agenda, or that students are not taught the right material or are poorly educated.”

Among Democrats, and those who lean Democrat, 56 percent of respondents expressed confidence in U.S. universities.

Though 2017 is the first time Gallup has polled such data about colleges and universities, the tension might not be new.

“There have always been attitudinal divides about higher education in this country,” said Dr. Antonia Darder, a professor in the school of education at Loyola Marymount University in California.

Darder added that despite the results of the survey, she doesn’t think Americans are likely to avoid college or to urge their children to do so.

“Although there is a supposed lack of confidence in higher education among Republicans, this perspective is more tied to a desire to control the curriculum, rather than to abolish the system of higher education,” she said.

Having public conversations about politics, art, and science is healthy for the country — but recent conflicts have taken on a darker tone, said Dr. Michele S. Moses, a professor in the school of education at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Although there is a supposed lack of confidence in higher education among Republicans, this perspective is more tied to a desire to control the curriculum, rather than to abolish the system of higher education.
Dr. Antonia Darder, professor at Loyola Marymount University

“What is problematic about more recent disagreements that have surfaced on campuses in the wake of President Trump’s election, is that people whose views about the United States conflict with our country’s deeply held ideals of equality, liberty, and diversity, have become more vocal,” Moses said.

She added, “Their views are not reasonable or tenable in an open democratic society such as ours.”

In contrast to the Republican respondents concerned about politics, Democrats in the same survey who expressed low confidence in college cited concerns about cost.

Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the think tank American Enterprise Institute, highlighted this issue.

“A college degree is still seen as something important for upward mobility,” Bowman said.

She added, “That said, I think there is a healthy debate going on about the value of a college education vs. technical or vocational education, especially given the cost of college.”

Is this, rather than the partisan divide, the main takeaway of the survey? Perhaps so. Dr. Julie Ajinkya, vice president for applied research at the nonpartisan Institute for Higher Education Policy said that cost needs to be the main focus when trying to improve higher ed.

“We shouldn’t be debating the value proposition of a high-quality college education,” Ajinkya said.

“Instead we should focus our attention on addressing the most persistent postsecondary education challenge affecting all Americans — affordability. The vast majority of Americans — low-income, working class and middle-class students — cannot afford to attend college. College must once again become an affordable, attainable reality for more Americans.”

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