Republicans Feel Mixed about Higher Education

This blog post is part of our Varying Degrees project. Over the next year, we will continue to analyze our own public opinion data along with data released by other organizations to better understand perceptions of higher education and implications for policymaking moving forward.

Recently, some high-profile survey results revealed that Republicans have low favorability of higher education. In July, Pew Research Center published survey data showing a majority of Republicans (58 percent) believe that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the way things are going in the country compared with only 19 percent of Democrats. Then, last month, Gallup found that two thirds of Republicans have only some or very little confidence in higher education whereas only 43 percent of Democrats feel that way.

The reality of Republican perceptions of higher education, however, is far more mixed. Yes, Republicans view colleges and universities on the whole with frustration, as seen in the Pew and Gallup surveys. But other public opinion data show Republicans view a college education, especially for their own child, as valuable and important to career success.

In August, for example, EdNext’s annual survey found that 88 percent of Republicans would want their child to attend either a two- or four-year college or university rather than not go to college at all. This tracks similarly to how Democrats responded (91 percent would send their children to college). And Pew found just last year that most Republicans (62 percent) said college prepares someone well for the workforce, not orders of magnitude different than the 73 percent of Democrats who said this was the case. To boot, our own survey data show that 73 percent of conservatives and 81 percent of liberals think that it is easier to be successful with a college degree than without.

Yes, it is true that Republicans believe colleges and universities have a negative impact on the way things are going in this country. This should not be dismissed and more should be done to unpack the driving forces behind these sentiments because the answers could have important implications for policymaking moving forward. The Gallup survey sheds some light--it asked an open-ended follow-up question to those who said they only had some or very little confidence in higher education. The top reasons? Republicans see colleges as being too liberal/political (32 percent), and not allowing students to think for themselves/pushing their own agenda (21 percent). 

But crucially, Republicans don’t feel so negative that they’d let their own children forgo a college education. Indeed, Democrats want the same for their children, albeit they feel more confident about higher education and believe it has a positive impact on the way things are going in this country. What will be important moving forward is to disentangle people's views of higher education as an elite pursuit from its impact on their personal lives, especially given the range of postsecondary options available. 

While some of these survey results may alarm those working in higher education and those who believe in the importance of education beyond high school, it is important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. In a time when there is plenty of focus is on what divides Republican and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, it should not be overlooked that regardless of party affiliation or ideology, most people see the value of higher education and believe it is the best way to prepare for a job or career.

Author:

Rachel Fishman is the deputy director for research with the Education Policy program at New America.