- Though a majority of Americans still view higher education as being good for the country, there is division along party lines on how the industry is viewed. According to a Pew Research Center report released Monday, a majority of Republicans and right-leaning citizens (58%) believing colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country while 72% of Democrats and left-leaning individuals perceive positive impact.
- The negative perception held by Republicans has changed dramatically in a short period of time — not even two years ago, only 37% viewed higher ed as having a negative effect on the country, and one year ago perceptions were much more mixed, with 45% reporting negative sentiments, and 43% feeling positively.
- Younger Republicans view the enterprise more favorably than those over 50, but their perception is declining more rapidly than those over 50 — a 21% drop in those who view it favorably among those under 50 since 2015, compared to a 15% drop for those over 50. And while the most conservative Republicans continue to view higher ed the most negatively, both ultra-conservatives and moderates have seen double-digit declines over the last two years, holding true regardless of education and income level, while Democrats with higher family incomes and more education feel more favorably about the sector.
The negative view of higher education held by Republicans could explain the lack of urgency by members of Congress to reauthorize the Higher Education Act — and even the desire in some cases to get rid of it and start from scratch. A majority of states (33) are currently operating under Republican governors, and 32 (not including the single-chambered Nebraska) are operating under Republican-controlled legislatures while 25 are under total Republican control. For administrators in these states, it is good to be aware of the potentially adversarial environment they may be facing when approaching state and federal advocacy — but it should not be a reason to disengage. In fact, it means higher ed government relations departments have even more work to do to secure the future of the institutions.
The Pew report does not get into reasons for the declining perception, but the biggest higher ed headlines in the last two years have been around affordability and freedom of expression — both issues which strike particular nerves with conservatives.
While college affordability has been a top-of-mind issue since Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the first Higher Education Act in 1965, the issue has really come to the forefront in the years since the start of the recession, coming to a head in 2015 when the Obama administration enacted the gainful employment regulations to target institutions which were providing students poor return on investment. And while Republicans have bucked against the Obama-era regulations, historic trends show the backlash may be more anti-Obama than anti-regulation of the for-profit industry, as Republicans have traditionally favored the kind of fiscal conservatism associated with the regulations.
President Trump himself voiced a belief while on the campaign trail that colleges should have some "skin in the game" on student debt, and American Association of State Colleges and Universities' Tom Harnisch told Education Dive shortly after the election that he expected affordability to be the biggest issue in higher education for the new president, suggesting the growing conversations around student debt and negative ROI may have something to do with the declining perception of higher ed as a whole.
Freedom of expression debate
In addition to affordability, growing debates over student protests and the way administrators have handled them has also likely played a huge part in the declining perception of higher ed as a whole. American Council of Trustees and Alumni President Michael Poliakoff recently told Education Dive that presidents should work to preserve absolute freedom of expression at all costs. Recent controversies over disinvited or removed speakers, and conversations about safe spaces, which abounded in the final years of the Obama administration, have likely damaged conservatives' perception of the industry. In fact, a 2016 Pew survey found that 79% of Americans overall believe protecting the right to nonviolent protest is very important to our democracy, and 74% think it's very important to protect the views of those with unpopular opinions.