Support for Free College Has Sharp Divide Along Partisan Lines, New Survey Finds

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The sharp partisan divides playing out in national politics have seeped into the public’s views on higher education, findings from a new survey suggest.

The survey from Education Next, released today, found that Democrats and Republicans have vastly different opinions on making four-year public colleges tuition-free, with 74% of respondents who identified as Democrats in support, compared with 29% who identified as Republicans.

“We've been doing the survey for a little over a decade now. And we often find party gaps, but we often don't find them on a lot of education issues,” said Michael Henderson, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication and director of its Public Policy Research Lab. “The ones we see on free college are huge in comparison to what we often find.”

Overall, 55% of respondents said they support free college, compared to 35% who oppose the idea.

With free college becoming a larger talking point among Democrats in particular during the primary debates, Henderson said he and his team expected to see the topic play out along party lines, but not to the extent it did in this year’s survey.

“If we were surveying issues like gun policy or culture war issues, these things that you find in sort of a lot of mainstream polls, there’s big partisan differences,” he said. “But when it comes to education issues, you often don't see partisan gaps that are that big in comparison to these other topics.”

Respondents who identified as Black were largely in support of free public college, with 76% saying they were behind the measure, and 75% of Hispanic respondents were in support. Among white respondents, 44% were in support.

Henderson noted support for free college among all respondents fell 5 percentage points from last year’s survey, with a slight decline among both Democrat and Republican respondents. He attributed the dip to the fact that the topic was prevalent in the Democratic primary debates and the issue is now more closely associated with the left.

As Pete Buttigieg — former mayor of South Bend, Indiana — and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) disagreed over how free college should be set structured, “maybe that caused some Democrats, maybe more moderate Democrats, to be a little bit less supportive,” Henderson said.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden laid out his plan for free community college last year during the early months of his campaign, saying he would commit $750 billion to higher education, funded over 10 years.

The survey, conducted in the middle of May with a nationally representative sample of more than 1,800 adults, asked respondents about a variety of education-related topics, including theirs opinions of higher education overall and views on individuals living in the country illegally — such as those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — being eligible for in-state college tuition.

Support for in-state college tuition for those students also broke down along party lines, being more than three times as popular among Democrats than among Republicans.

Respondents were asked their views on whether noncitizens should be eligible for in-state college tuition rates if they graduate from a local high school, for example. Overall, 46% were in support, with 66% of Democrats in support compared to 22% of Republican respondents.

Notably, four-year higher education institutions as a whole were viewed positively by a majority of respondents. The proportion of respondents giving an A or B letter grade to public and private colleges and universities across the country both rose by 4 percentage points this year compared to last year, to 62% and 70%, respectively. Henderson noted that Americans appear to have grown more critical of both public and private institutions in their own state, but more supportive of public and private four-year institutions as a whole.

However, only 10% of respondents identified in the survey as the general public gave an A letter grade to public four-year colleges and universities throughout the nation.


Publication Date: 8/18/2020

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