Why Do Republicans Suddenly Hate College So Much?

Whether it’s safe spaces and free-speech issues or Trump’s lack of interest in higher education, the ramifications for the nation’s economy and schools could be serious.

An anti-Trump protest at New York University
An anti-Trump protest at New York University (Bria Webb / Reuters)

News flash: In the era of Trump, institutions—and especially those that are perceived as liberal—are unpopular, and opinions divide sharply along party lines, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center.

Alright, maybe that isn’t surprising. But there is one startling result in the survey: a sharp decline in conservative impressions of universities.

Most of the results are about what one would expect. Churches and religious organizations are popular, though more popular with Republicans and Republican-leaning voters than their Democratic counterparts. Banks are somewhere in the middle. Neither group likes the national news media, though the Democrats are more favorable. (We get it, you don’t like us.) It used to be that colleges and universities were another one of those institutions that could generate at least theoretical goodwill on both sides of the aisle.

Voters’ Views on Colleges and Universities

What could possibly account for such a steep drop in trust in universities? Several analysts, including Philip Bump, suggested that this is backlash against the rise of identity politics on college campuses. Bump noted an increase in Google searches for “safe space” over the time period in which the flip happened.

This has to be a major factor. Conservative media has focused heavily on campus protests, free-speech clashes, and debates over (for example) whether offering ethnic food in dining halls constitutes cultural appropriation. Multiple states have introduced legislation designed to protect unpopular speakers, taking up model legislation circulated by a think tank.

Still, I’m skeptical that this explains all of the change. After all, to mix a metaphor, conservative leaders have used the Ivory Tower as a punching bag for decades, at least since William F. Buckley began using his famous quip about preferring government by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook to a regime of Harvard professors, a quip that dates itself by invoking phonebooks (but appears to date to the early 1960s). Campuses have also been battlegrounds for culture wars since then, and no acrimony today can match the battles at Berkeley or Kent State in the 1960s and 1970s, though it’s true that conservative media is also far stronger now. Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal of corroborating evidence to draw on, either. While some polls—including Pew—have measured support for hate-speech codes among Millennials, that doesn’t tell us anything concrete about the backlash. A steep drop in enrollment at the University of Missouri reached the headlines recently, a ripple effect of huge protests there, but there isn’t a corresponding drop in attendance around the country.

So if “safe spaces” account for only some of the shift, what else might be at work? One theory that seems to make a lot of sense is that the composition of the Republican/Republican-leaning demographic has shifted. (For simplicity, let’s just call them the Republicans from here on out. Pollsters and political scientists have long ago shown that while a growing number of Americans identify as independents, most of them vote pretty consistently for one party or the other.)

This is alluring because it fits with the fact that, as Nate Silver has written, “it appears as though educational levels are the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016.” If the voters who Trump picked up over Mitt Romney are more likely not to have a college education, it isn’t surprising that they would have less attachment to the role of colleges and universities. However, as Pew’s Jocelyn Kiley pointed out to me, Pew hasn’t found a huge shift in partisan identification to match the change. Besides, positive feeling about colleges and universities has slid among all Republican demographics.

Trump might bear closer examination as a driver, though, even if it doesn’t come through in changing party composition. Over the period in which Pew measured the enormous switch, the president has been by far the most potent force in Republican politics, showing that he could overcome the party establishment and much of the conservative media. That allowed him to reverse long-held GOP stands on certain issues—not just in the platform, but in the minds of Republican voters, too. Not long ago, free trade was a bedrock belief of the GOP. Yet consider this Pew result from last August:

Partisan Views on Trade Agreements

An even more dramatic, if less substantive, example is Vladimir Putin, whose net favorability rose a dizzying 56 points from 2014 to late 2016 in a YouGov/Economist poll. (Gallup found a smaller, though still sizable, increase.)

Trump hasn’t put much effort into bashing colleges for safe spaces and the like. It was highly unusual when, in February, he tweeted angrily about students trying to prevent Trump-backing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous from speaking at the University of California at Berkeley:

In fact, what’s most striking about Trump is that he barely talks about higher education at all. Sure, there were some desultory boasts about his own attendance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School during the campaign, but Trump never even bothered to produce a higher-education platform (even as Hillary Clinton made a plan for affordable degrees a centerpiece of her stump speech). When he finally did get around to discussing it, in the campaign’s closing days, it was mostly to criticize rising tuition and to promise to bring it down.

Trump’s innovation maybe wasn’t to bash college so much as to ignore it. Previous candidates, in both parties, paid at least lip service to the idea of expanding educational opportunities and retraining workers whose jobs were eliminated by changes in the U.S. economy. The first indications that that was changing came in the 2012 GOP primary, when Rick Santorum (B.A., Penn State; M.B.A, Pitt; J.D., Dickinson Law) accused Barack Obama of being a “snob” for trying to expand access to education. Trump didn’t bother to make the case for retraining or education; he simply promised dispossessed blue-collar workers that their jobs in mills, factories, and especially coal mines were going to come back.

Meanwhile, college is becoming increasingly expensive and therefore out of reach, even at the public universities that have historically been a boon to lower-income citizens. While college enrollment jumped during the recession, as people sought shelter from a poor jobs market, graduation rates fell. And since then, enrollment has fallen, too, especially for lower-income students. A PRRI/The Atlantic poll found that 54 percent of white working-class voters now consider college more “a gamble that may not pay off” than “a smart investment in the future”; those who viewed it as a gamble were almost twice as likely to back Trump as those who disagreed.

Regardless of the degree to which each of these factors, along with any others, contribute to the drop in favorable views of colleges and universities, the implications are potentially far-reaching. If more than a third of the country, and six in 10 Republicans, think that institutions of higher education are harming the country, it’s hard to imagine that won’t eventually result in larger drops in enrollment. And since, whatever Trump says, those manufacturing and mining jobs almost certainly aren’t coming back to their old levels, that could create a drag on the nation’s economy in the future.