Does Higher Education Have a Negative Effect on America?

If you are a Republican who read that title, according to Pew, chances are good that you muttered “yes.” While there is a lot to digest and react to in this report, the overwhelmingly negative attitude that Republicans and Republican-leaning Americans have developed towards higher education in the last several years is the most alarming.

A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years…


Since 2015, positive views of colleges and universities have fallen 11 points among Republicans with a college degree or more education (from 44% to 33%) and 20 points among those who do not have a college degree (57% to 37%). There also have been double-digit declines in the share of conservative Republicans (from 48% to 29%) and moderate and liberal Republicans (from 62% to 50%) who say colleges have a positive effect on the country.
Two interesting things jump out to me about this report:
1) Republicans, on average, think the banks and financial institutions (the economic elite who caused the last recession, have liquidated the middle-class and working-class retirement funds, and shifted business focuses towards the investor class and away from workers or consumers) are more positive institutions than colleges or universities.
2) Wealthy Republicans, whose children almost universally attend colleges and universities, have a lower opinion of higher education than the poorest Republicans. Older Republicans also have lower opinions of higher ed than younger ones. What a surprise– people who have everything are very willing to pull the ladder up behind them.
Why are conservatives becoming so hostile to higher education? A big part of the shift we see in the second paragraph above is about how badly they have lost the culture war, as I wrote about last week. But there is clearly a class component at work here as well.
The money quote on class: “Among Republicans, nearly half of those with family incomes of less than $30,000 (46%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, compared with only about a third (32%) of those with higher incomes.”
What a surprise!! People who already have college degrees and people who plan on sending their children away to college think the institution has a negative impact on American society. Those who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college or a currently struggling in poverty or the lower-working class see it positively. One group already has the advantages higher education provides (and plans on continuing to use it all the while sneering at it). The other is looking for a way up from the bottom and sees college as a (perhaps the only) way out.
Why are so many Republicans turning against the institution? Propaganda, primarily. On one hand, they have their party and media leaders (all highly educated people, I might add) telling them that college campuses are just four-year parties where kids are indoctrinated by liberal professors about safe spaces and hate speech. Ask any person you know who hates colleges and thinks they indoctrinate the youth to explain the current historiographic debate on a subject of major importance (say civil rights, urban decay, deindustrialization, or US foreign policy in the Middle East since 1945)– I’ll go out on a limb and guess they can’t tell you the orthodox, revisionist, or emerging consensus view (if one exists) on literally any topic. Likewise, they won’t tell you about new scientific research, improved management techniques, the emphasis on active learning in our classrooms, or any of the countless innovations and developments taking place on our campuses every single day. But this silly narrative, which is little more than a Sean Hannity fever dream, dominates their thinking on the subject.
The other piece of this conservative propaganda puzzle is their push to defund public higher education in favor of “vocational schools.” Advocates for increased vocational education juxtapose “frivolous” liberal arts degrees, like mine in history, with more grounded vocational training in something like welding or auto mechanics. To them, public funding for education is a zero-sum game and the poor and working class should be funneled into the most practical job route. Why pay with our tax dollars or have the individual rack up huge student loan debt on a degree they will have trouble paying off when they would be better off with a stable trade job?
To be clear, I have nothing against trades– I have many friends and family who are quite happy working these jobs and they provide a very valuable service in our economy. But think about who is telling you this and what their agenda has to gain from it. Wealthy conservatives love to tell you that you should send you children (males, specifically) to a trade school. Few, if any, will be sending their sons or daughters there. No, their sons will get “frivolous” degrees in political science, history, English, and a host of other “esoteric” fields that unlock graduate training, professional degrees, geographic mobility, less physically demanding work, better work/life balance, and exponentially higher income levels. If most students from public schools in lower income areas are just going to vocational schools you’ll see college prep courses fly out the window with budget crunches. And those budgets will be crunched– it is part of the GOP playbook everywhere in the country where they hold overwhelming power. Without these courses, your child is locked into the vocational path, no matter how talented or hard working they are. They simply lack the skills and information to be able to navigate even the application process to higher education. If fewer members of the working and middle class are enrolling in colleges we won’t need as many public higher education institutions. We can shut down some and consolidate others. Who needs an OSU Lima? Everyone in Lima who can’t afford to go to OSU or Toledo can either go online (which carries its own set of drawbacks and barriers)– they can all just go to UNOH! Oh, you wanted to become a physician who works with poor elderly people in rural communities? Sorry, we don’t have a program like that. You’d probably make a fine medical assistant who does clerical tasks in a doctor’s office! This means being locked into the working/lower middle class generationally. Staying in the upper middle to upper class remains the privilege of the educated elite.

It isn’t just about class privilege though. Innovation comes through experience. And more often than not, innovation comes from overcoming tough circumstances– necessity is the mother of innovation. People are inspired to open businesses in places others wouldn’t. They bring services to their hometowns and similar communities that wouldn’t have otherwise had them. They make changes to government policies and laws because they have seen first-hand the effects of the system. Our leadership, in politics, business, technology, science, the arts, and spirituality are all at risk if we start limiting higher education access for all but the wealthiest third of Americans.

Furthermore, I don’t believe most conservatives who say this sort of thing truly believe what they are saying. But they love the message. Tell the poor and middle-class how pointless education is. Heck, not just pointless, but actively harmful to society. Pair this with their “we need more vocational training” (again, you won’t catch the wealthy conservatives sending their children to vocationally programs– this is to keep the poor and working class in “their lanes”) and you have a nifty little narrative to explain why you want to defund public education.

If you think colleges and universities are so terrible, by all means, feel free to keep yourself and your kids at home. There are plenty of other people who would kill for the opportunity to attend the prestigious institutions you have so much disdain for. Don’t waste your time applying for our law schools, medical schools, or MBA programs– what could you possibly learn there that might benefit you or society? Please stay out of our laboratories, athletic facilities, archives, libraries, medical centers, convention centers, and classrooms– nothing good happens here. Good luck maintaining your perch on the top of American society while wallowing in ignorance. Eventually, granddaddy’s money will run out.

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