Survey: Republicans' Distrust of Higher Ed Is Political, Not Operational

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Americans' feelings toward higher education vary widely across political affiliations, with Republicans' attitudes souring in recent years. But a new survey from Gallup claims the negative views stem more from the nation's politically charged environment and less from the cost or operations of colleges in the United States.

A report on the survey, released Wednesday, found that overall 33 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in American higher education. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats said they had some or very little confidence in colleges and universities. Gallup polled more than 1,000 adults through telephone interviews at the beginning of August, for the first time including colleges and universities in its confidence in institutions survey.

The survey comes on the heels of a report from the Pew Research Center that found Republicans have increasingly negative views toward the impact colleges and universities have on the country. In 2017, 58 percent of Republicans said colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country, up from 45 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, the percentage of Democrats who thought colleges and universities have a positive impact remained relatively constant over the last few years, with 72 percent responding positively in 2017. However, another recent survey from Education Next found that when given information about the cost of college and the potential earnings benefits, partisan divides disappeared.

Still, all three surveys show that initially, there is a wide partisan gap when it comes to attitudes toward higher education.

The Gallup survey found that Republicans who viewed higher education negatively were most likely to list political factors in their reasoning. For example, 32 percent of Republicans who had some or very little confidence in colleges and universities said they felt that way because they believe they are too liberal and political. Another 21 percent said they believed colleges and universities don't allow students to think for themselves, and are pushing an agenda.

"In short, Republicans with low confidence tend to see the world of higher education through distinctly political eyes," the report said.

On the other hand, Democrats with some or very little confidence in colleges and universities cited concerns with the cost of college, leadership, and overall quality. More than one-third of Democrats with low confidence – 36 percent – said they felt that way because colleges are too expensive, while 14 percent said they felt the institutions have poor leadership, are not well-run, have too much corporate interest, or have bad policies.

But when Gallup looked at the reasoning behind the answers among respondents with higher confidence, the same stark partisan divide did not appear. The top reasons listed by both Democrats and Republicans for high confidence in colleges and universities were personal positive experiences, a belief that higher education is essential to the country, and that colleges are doing a good job training and educating students.

"The finding that U.S. adults are increasingly divided along partisan lines on various issues is no longer new or surprising," the report said. "This divide has now crept into views of higher education, likely exacerbated by several high-profile student protests that have spurred debates about free speech and contentious choices for speakers on campus."

The Gallup report noted that the downward trend in Republicans' attitudes could turn favorable again, but it will depend heavily on whether Republicans see higher education as too liberal and political.

In an accompanying opinion piece, Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, wrote that higher education should consider dropping the term "liberal arts."

"‘Liberal' is politically charged, and ‘arts' has a negative connotation regarding improving graduates' job prospects, which is the main reason why Americans and currently enrolled college students value higher education," Busteed wrote, saying that the two words together result in a "branding disaster." That's not to say, however, that liberal arts programs don't provide meaningful skills for students, he said.

"... It's time to disconnect the strong value undergirding the liberal arts from the weak words that define them. The words ‘liberal' and ‘arts' just don't resonate in the minds of far too many Americans, especially those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder," he wrote. "To defend the liberal arts, do so by describing their attributes and arguably essential – and practical – benefits, not their name. Let's either give the liberal arts a new name – or no name at all. To turn the tide on waning public support for higher education, this would be a big step."


Publication Date: 8/18/2017

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