Republicans Changed Their Mind About Higher Education Really Quickly

A majority of them no longer think campuses are setting the country on the right course. What happened?

Kevork Djansezian / Getty

At the beginning of the 2010s, 58 percent of Republicans believed that colleges and universities had a positive impact on the course of the country, according to the Pew Research Center. As the decade nears its close, that number has fallen precipitously: It now sits at 33 percent, with the majority of the drop occurring from 2015 to 2017.

According to Pew, there seems to be little disagreement between political parties on the notion that a diploma helps one succeed in the world or that the cost of attaining one is too high. The complaints particular to Republicans, though, are ideological in nature: They are far more likely than Democrats to believe that higher education is shaping America for the worse because too many professors impose their politics on students and because colleges go too far in shielding students from things that might offend them.

In 2017, when the extent of Republicans’ abrupt drop in support for higher education first became apparent in Pew’s data, my colleague David Graham considered several possible explanations: Maybe it was that conservative media outlets had been “focus[ing] heavily on campus protests [and] free-speech clashes,” maybe it was President Donald Trump and his ability to “reverse long-held GOP stands on certain issues,” and maybe it was that “conservative leaders have used the Ivory Tower as a punching bag for decades.” More recently, Reihan Salam observed that some Republican voters’ mistrust of college might stem from their lack of access to the economic benefits of a degree.

By now, it’s clear that the 2015-era decline was not a blip, and it was likely some combination of the above that took Republicans from being collectively pro-college to anti-college over the course of the 2010s. It’s not obvious what precisely changed—especially to cause that mid-decade drop-off—but some experts who follow the politics of college see in this shift the culmination of conservatives’ decades-long work to undermine the status of higher education.

Amy Binder, a sociologist at UC San Diego and a co-author of Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, cites the “wide availability of critiques of higher ed” as a potential cause of this shift. Here, she was thinking of the ideas emanating from conservative student-focused organizations such as Turning Point USA and Young America’s Foundation, academic internet sensations such as Jordan Peterson and Christina Hoff Sommers, and Fox News; all tend to promote the notion that campuses are inhospitable for conservatives.

Their narrative isn’t new—though it might be newly widespread. “What was it about 2015 that really started turning the tide?,” Binder says. “I just can’t pinpoint exactly what it is. Outside organizations’ attacks on higher education vastly predate these new trends in how the public perceives higher education.”

Binder thinks colleges might be a compelling political target to Republicans because conservatives are so rarely in control of them. “The academy is one area of American life that conservatives have most definitely not captured,” she told me.

The critiques also capitalize on the skepticism Americans have long held toward book-learning. “Americans may love on some level the notion of having some of the greatest universities in the world, but basically we like practical things, as opposed to the life of the mind, which is seen as slightly European, elitist, [and] not quite connected to the larger culture,” says William Reese, a professor of educational-policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The experts I talked with pointed to recurring examples of anti-college rhetoric from the ’50s to the pre-Trump 2010s—it has regularly (and unsurprisingly) flared up over the years. (Pew’s data only goes back to 2010, so it’s hard to compare the views of today’s public with those of past Americas.)

This is the historical undercurrent that today’s messaging carries forward. Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, says of Fox News’s coverage, “Every story about [a] university is essentially the same: Somebody on the left did or said a censorious thing that in some way victimizes a conservative.” Given how prominently universities feature in conservative media as examples of what’s wrong with America, Zimmerman says, he’s surprised that there aren’t even fewer Republicans who hold colleges in high regard.

He thinks that these attacks on higher education as being left-leaning land because there is some validity to them. “When Republicans say that universities, at least elite universities, are controlled by and overwhelmingly [staffed] by Democrats, that’s true,” Zimmerman told me. “Now, does that mean that we are all wild-eyed Marxists, devoted to indoctrinating students with antifa ideas and so on? It doesn’t. But I think the fact of a skew toward the liberal side does provide a believability for the extreme and false statements.”

Zimmerman also wonders about the role Trump has played in prompting Republicans to revise down their opinions of colleges. “It would be hard to imagine an administration that has been more dismissive of credentialed knowledge than this one … It makes total sense, given that context, that you would see an uptick in the number of Republican voters that also express disdain for the university,” he said, though he acknowledged that it’s hard to identify any one cause at this point in time.

Will Republicans regain faith in colleges? “I think it could easily reverse,” says Steven Brint, a sociologist at UC Riverside and the author of Two Cheers for Higher Education. He notes that these trend lines are only a couple years old, and thinks that if enough influential people voice defenses of American institutions (including but not limited to universities), public opinion could shift again.

Amy Binder is not so optimistic. She sees a conservative movement that has been far outspending liberals on these sorts of messaging campaigns. “I think the organizational infrastructure is in place. There are a lot of people who have jobs in this and have posh offices in D.C., whether at think tanks or foundations or lobbying firms,” she said. “So I don’t see their efforts diminishing.”