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.