With today’s fierce demand for college graduates, debating the value of higher learning is like arguing over Newtonian physics—a bit of a moot point. A college education indisputably has a positive impact on those who finish—the earnings potential of an adult with a Bachelor’s Degree is several times higher than someone with only some college or a high school diploma.
But a survey released July 10 by the respected Pew Research Center has ignited debate with its finding that just 36% of registered Republicans believe that higher education has “a positive impact on American society.”
The snapshot poll reveals crumbling public trust not only in higher education, but also other institutions including law enforcement, organized religion, corporations, the U.S. military and Congress. Americans’ faith has slipped in many of the same institutions once considered pillars of society—and that trend manifests itself in GOP support for higher education.
Before jumping to conclusions, there are several issues with the poll itself to unpack. For one, the definition of “positive impact” is highly subjective, and the Pew poll does not elaborate on the meaning of “positive impact.” A positive impact on career prospects? On their cognitive and intellectual development? On their ability to participate in the civic process? The Pew poll is silent on this. Secondly, party identification seems a blunt and one-dimensional instrument for assessing public attitudes toward higher education. Party affiliation seems to be in a fluid state in the wake of a divisive and eccentric election cycle featuring two historically unpopular candidates that left large numbers of voters disaffected from their own parties.
Nonetheless—why the GOP negativity toward higher education? Facile explanations abound. Perhaps Republicans harbor negative opinions toward higher education because of student activism, attacks on campus free speech, and perceptions of political orthodoxy.
But why not turn the question on its head: Why are so many Democrats overwhelmingly positive about a system with very legitimate issues related to consumer price and value? Registered Democrats, at first blush, seem much more positive about higher education. But political events and behavior suggest that Republicans aren’t the only ones with serious anxiety about higher education’s status quo. After all, major Democratic political figures have effectively capitalized over widespread voter anxiety surrounding student debt and college affordability with promises of “free college.”
Leaving aside party labels, research suggests that consumers actually do share skepticism about the value of their college experience. The recent Education Consumer Pulse conducted by Gallup on behalf of Strada Education found that about half of college graduates regret at least one of their most significant college decisions, such as school or degree type. Other polls suggest similar anxiety levels amongst employers and graduates themselves about the value of the four-year-degree in today’s fierce job market.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that both political camps have significant discontent with the cost of higher education and the outcomes they receive in return. Hopefully, the partisan divide doesn’t swallow up opportunities to reach consensus about making college more affordable and relevant to labor market demands.
Ted Eismeier is a communications consultant who has advised a wide range of non-profit organizations, associations and businesses working on K-12 and higher education issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.