Partisan Divisions Cause Politicians to View Higher Education Differently

As political tensions have increasingly risen over the past few years, Republicans and Democrats have begun to offer starkly varied assessments of some of the nation’s most fundamental institutions. Most recently, the news media, colleges and universities, and religious organizations have been deeply scrutinized, and views of these institutions have changed significantly throughout the course of this year, according to new research by the Pew Research Center.

A slight majority of the country (55 percent) believes that colleges and universities have an overall positive effect on the country, but over the past year, Republicans have increasingly begun to express negative views.

“A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45%  last year,” the aforementioned research notes. “By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.”

It’s worth noting, however, that different demographics among Republicans tend to view college differently. Younger adults tend to have a much more positive view of colleges and universities than older adults. Over half (52%) of Republicans ages 18-29 say that colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country, compared to a mere 27% of those ages 65 and older.

Democrats, on the other hand, see the value in the university experience regardless of their age.

What are the potential causes of this trend?

Some analysts are reporting that this backlash is due, in part, to the rise of identity politics on college campuses. One analyst, Philip Bump, argues that this may be true due to the increase in Google searches for “safe space” throughout the past year, when Republican dissent began to increase.

His analysis is easy to understand. Throughout the past year, conservative media has focused on and ridiculed a number of issues present on today’s college campuses, including campus protests, free-speech rallies, safe spaces,  and debates over cultural appropriation on campuses.

But a newly awoken politically correct college environment may not be the only issue causing the Republican shift in attitude towards colleges and universities.

Many Republicans take particular issue with the fact that college students graduate with degrees that they deem to be unnecessary, or are unable to repay their loans. For conservatives, degrees that fall under Liberal Arts categories come under fire the most.

Republican Governor of Florida Rick Scott has been an outspoken critic of Liberal Arts students, and has stated previously that he believes that degrees are only useful if they actively contribute to in-demand jobs and don’t teach students to question social norms.

“You know what? They need to get education in areas where they can get jobs,” Scott told a conservative radio station. “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

Scott went on to say, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

A number of conservative policy makers have echoed these kinds of statements, but they haven’t come without backlash.

“First, he ignores a host of recent research that shows college majors don’t matter as much in graduates’ long-term earning power as is often assumed,” writes Adam Weinstein of Mother Jones. “Second, ‘soft’ subjects like anthropology (and philosophy, and history, and psychology, and English) serve their students pretty darn well: Take a look at the surprising list of notable Americans who majored in them…including Dubya, Carly Fiorina, Clarence Thomas, Billy Graham, and Ronald Reagan. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better marketer or brand specialist than an Anthro major.”

In fact, many colleges have responded, arguing that Liberal Arts skills are necessary, regardless of the field you graduates end up in.

“The objective of public universities should not be to produce predetermined numbers of particular types of majors but, rather, to focus on how to produce individuals who are capable of learning anything over the course of their lifetimes,” writes Arizona State University President Michael Crow. “Every college student should acquire thorough literacy in science and technology as well as the humanities and social sciences. Every student should have an understanding of complexity and sustainability and decision-making matched with a general awareness of entrepreneurship and business. From this breadth of experience, students gain the perspective and focus necessary to succeed in any academic field and subsequent career trajectory.”

Regardless of which factors are driving Republican disdain of colleges and universities, the implications of their viewpoints have the potential to be far-reaching.

As David A. Graham writes for the Atlantic, “If more than a third of the country and six in 10 Republicans, think that institutions of higher education are harming the country, it’s hard to imagine that won’t eventually result in larger drops in enrollment. And since, whatever Trump says, those manufacturing and mining jobs almost certainly aren’t coming back to their old levels, that could create a drag on the nation’s economy in the future.”

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