Republican opposition to US higher education ‘overstated’

Major survey finds widespread support for universities among party’s supporters, but reveals clear divides with Democrats on funding

May 22, 2018
US party animals

A pair of surveys last year from the Pew Research Center and Gallup showed deep scepticism about higher education among Republican respondents. While subsequent, less publicised surveys painted a more complex picture, many college leaders and academics remain worried about whether Republican scrutiny could lead to (more) budget cuts or policy crackdowns.

New America is the latest on the scene with the release of its second annual survey on Americans’ attitudes about higher education. The Washington DC-based thinktank tweaked several of the questions this time around. But both instalments found that respondents largely believe that it is easier to be successful with a college degree than without one. And Republicans were generally positive about higher education and even their tax dollars going to support it, according to the new survey.

For example, 80 per cent of the 1,600 adults surveyed agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement that “there are more opportunities for people who pursue education after high school” – as did 77 per cent of Republicans.

The survey results aren’t all good news for universities, however, as it found that just one in four respondents think that higher education is fine the way it is. New America also uncovered a substantial divide between Republican and Democratic respondents on who should pay for college.

The survey asked whether respondents felt that the statement the “government should fund higher education because it is good for society” or “students should fund their own education because it is a personal benefit” were closer to their point of view.

Seventy-six per cent of Democratic respondents backed the government support statement, compared with about 34 per cent of Republicans. Just 13 per cent of Democrats agreed that students should fund their educations (because it is a personal benefit) compared with about 52 per cent of Republicans.

Likewise, the survey found fairly large partisan splits on questions about whether respondents were comfortable with their tax dollars supporting higher education or whether states and the federal government should spend more to make college more affordable. Even so, almost two-thirds (63.5 per cent) of Republicans were comfortable with their tax dollars being spent on higher education.

New America also asked if respondents had positive views of nearby colleges. This one had broad support from backers of both political parties – almost 78 per cent of Republicans and 84 per cent of Democrats.

Rachel Fishman, deputy director for higher education research at New America, compared the apparent contradiction of people liking their local colleges but being more sceptical about higher education broadly with the axiom of people “hating Congress but loving their member of Congress”. That phenomenon also gels with common findings in Inside Higher Ed’s surveys of college administrators, who tend to see good things on their campuses and problems with the industry at large.

Among all respondents, a majority said that community colleges and four-year public institutions are worth the cost (81 per cent and 65 per cent, respectively). Those numbers dip substantially for private non-profit colleges (44 per cent) and for-profits (40 per cent).

Yet on the whole, New America’s survey findings should be far less alarming for college leaders than the results from Pew and Gallup.

“While past studies have suggested that Republicans feel negatively about higher education, the new Varying Degrees survey tells a slightly different and much more complex story,” Ms Fishman said. “The priorities of either party cannot be reduced to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in terms of government investment in education beyond high school. That insight opens up a great deal of opportunity for continued discussion and collaboration.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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