Why a War Over College?

Tufts professor Daniel W. Drezner wrote a piece some years ago about the decades-long conservative "war on college." And of course around the traditional and social media spheres, everyone decided it's time for a war and let's start drawing some battle lines why don't we.

Conservative media may tell you that colleges are not only wasteful and out of touch, but are brainwashing kids into liberalism. Liberal media may tell you that conservatives have contempt for education and expertise. 

Is there a growing partisan gap in how people feel about college? Gallup says yes. Democrats's confidence in college has held steady; Republicans' confidence in it has dropped over time. Currently 56% of Democrats say they have confidence in the college system; only 33% of Republicans do.

Why the gap? The "liberal college" narrative seems to be at the top of the headlines. Let's dig into that first.

Are Colleges Very Liberal?

Professors are, definitely. In self-identity, they're 60% liberal and 10% conservative. However, we know people tend to call themselves "moderate" more often when they're surrounded by people of one political leaning or another. If we just look at party registration--a more objective factor--Democratic professors outnumber Republican professors 12:1. And in the humanities--where politics matters more--the gap is bigger: in history, Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 34:1. 

But as we discussed in a previous post, people with higher education tend to be more liberal. 


(Also worth noting: those with postgrad degrees are less likely to be left-wing and more likely to be right-wing than professors as a whole. )

Highly-educated people and professors tend to be more liberal. Maybe that's just how it goes, and of course conservatives don't like people becoming more liberal, so they're against education as a whole, because education makes people liberal.

Or there's a selection bias in the groups: that is, people who tend towards liberalism are more likely to go get postgraduate degrees because they just happen to be people who want jobs which need those, where moderates and conservatives are more likely to want jobs that don't require a college degree (notably, vocational education, trades, and other forms of non-college education simply aren't in this poll, and could account for some of the shift).

Or there's a vicious cycle: liberal professors teach their grad students to be liberal, and then those grad students are the hiring base for the new batch of professors. There's no way to get someone through the gauntlet that qualifies them for academic jobs without 8+ years of exposure to overwhelming liberal influence. 

Or there may be some hiring (and even grad student admission) bias by liberal professors against conservatives

The problem is that all of these hypotheses are plausible explanations in the left shift of people higher up the education chain. And they may all be factors. Each is very hard to prove wrong.

A little bit of history may help us.

Have They Always Been That Way?

Have colleges always been liberal, or have they grown more so? Knowing this can help us think about what's driving conservatives' lack of confidence in colleges, and also help us explore which of the above factors might be driving liberalism in colleges.

It turns out colleges haven't always been as liberal as they are now. In 1989, 40% of professors were liberal, 20% of professors were conservative and 40% were moderate. In 2014, 60% were liberal, 30% moderate, and 10% conservative. In 1984, Reagan won 61% of college-educated votes, compared to 59% of the overall vote

Looking farther back: in 1969, 28% of professors described themselves as conservative to 46% liberal. This is a gap much smaller than 2:1, where today the gap is 6:1.

In 1955, in a study looking only at social scientists, 47% of professors reported they were Democrats and 16% said they were Republicans (that's a 3:1 gap; much less than the 35:1 gap we see now in a history department). 

What we see is a steady rise of liberalism dominating the professor sphere, although it seems to have leaned liberal as far back as we have been researching it in the US. Since education hasn't changed all that much, it suggests that there is a factor besides simply the idea that being more educated makes you more liberal.

Does College Make You More Liberal?

It seems a foregone conclusion that more education makes you more liberal, and whether you're on the left or the right you might be celebrating this or condemning it.

What does the research say? A 2008 study in Political Science (a journal I have a lot of respect for) says that there's no evidence that more liberal professors lead to more liberal students. If this is right, it would nix the "indoctrination" idea. 

Perhaps they move left not because of indoctrination, but education and environment? A 2010 study actually followed students through college and found that their "aggregate attitudes do not appear to vary much between their first and final years." 

The academic evidence seems to suggest that not only are liberal professors not causing students to move left throughout college, but that students are simply not moving left. So no, going to college probably doesn't make you more liberal, either by noble or ignoble explanation.

This suggests there is a selection bias up the chain. There is some evidence of hiring bias (and therefore perhaps candidate selection bias)--liberal professors tend to hire and accept more liberal people. There's also evidence that conservatives select out of going to more college (or college at all) and are more prone to move on towards industry. I'm eager to find how conservatives and liberals stack up on attendance in trades and vocational education, as this may be another explanatory factor--they might tend to just want to go to different kinds of jobs. 

How You Feel About College Depends on How You're Looking at It

Imagine you're a liberal and I tell you I'm a conservative and I think college is a waste of time and as much a liberal advocacy group as a place of scholarship.

Now imagine you're a liberal and I tell you about Germany's vocational system and why it's so much better for the average worker than the pricey US system. Or I tell you that college is a way of reinforcing a strict social class system.

These two examples are meant to illustrate that we can be primed to think about things differently when they are framed differently, as we'll see below:

If we look at polls about colleges' "impact on the US" or people's "confidence," we see a stark divide. Pew shows that Republicans' belief in the impact of colleges plummeted after 2015, where Democrats' are higher than ever. 

Democrats love college, Republicans hate it.

What if we ask a question that is more specific? Something that is less likely to trigger thoughts about a culture war over college. 

There's a growing consensus that college isn't worth the cost--47% of Americans (including 43% of Democrats and 52% of Republicans) believe this. 

But at the same time, 62% of Republicans and 73% of Democrats said that college prepares people well for the economy. 

So this is where things get interesting. When we just ask about the merits of college to a specific person going to college, there's something much closer to agreement. The much smaller gap in responses may be weighted by the fact that people who went to college are brighter on it (regardless of political ideology). If that's the case, then the merits of college are fairly well-agreed upon, even though people are conflicted. Most Americans, regardless of political ideology, believe that college prepares you well for the workplace but also that it's getting too expensive.

It's also worth noting that in that first Gallup survey, which showed 56% of Democrats having confidence in the college system and only 33% of Republicans having that confidence, is a much smaller gap than the "good for the country" survey question. The less wishy-washy the question, the less wedge-y and grandstand-y the response. So the gap probably isn't as big as most people think. 

What Drives the Gap?

We found that Americans tend to agree on the value of college more when we just focus on brass tacks, rather than talking in vagueries. This reflects what we discussed in Wedged about other wedge issues. 

Is it likely that liberals are warmer to college because the faces of the colleges--the professors--are liberal and more like them, and vice-versa? This is probably a factor. Conservatives have brighter views of conservative-dominated institutions, such as big business and the military, where liberals have rosier views of more liberal institutions, such as academia and non-profits. What's surprising is that anyone is surprised by this. If college professors were 12:1 Republican, it would be surprising if warmth to the institution wasn't ideologically reversed. 

But there may be a more interesting factor as well. Conservatives tend to believe (by more than 2:1) that college is about learning skills rather than going through personal growth, where liberals are tied between the two.


Given the ever-growing concerns about the cost of college and the value of non-STEM degrees, it's perhaps not surprising that those who see college as job training are going to sour on it faster than those who see it as an expensive personal growth opportunity.

But Yes, It's a Wedge Issue

Is the war over college a wedge issue? Absolutely. Given that headlines are frequently dotted with reports of physical assaults of conservative professors by liberal students, arguments over use of preferred gender pronouns in college, and roiling debates over whether couples in college need to get legally-binding verbal consent before having sex with each other, colleges clearly showcase the left wing edge of a number of wedge issues. The institution can't help but be embroiled in it. 

Left-wing activism on campus by enthusiastic leftists students is nothing new. Colleges led protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s ("LBJ, LBJ, how many kids will you kill today?") and tend to be where 19-year-olds read Marx and decide maybe he was on to something (if they're ever going to). Professors have always leaned left, and today they do so more than ever--and more than other people with postgraduate educations. 

Is it surprising or absurd that there is a gap over confidence in academia? No. If students were making headlines trying to stop left-wing speakers, or protesting against gay marriage; if Republican professors outnumbered Democratic professors 12:1, it's likely conservatives and liberals would have very different levels of confidence in the institution. People are going to look favorably upon institutions that represent their tribe, and be annoyed at those which seem to represent the opposite tribe--and that is more true today than ever. Don't read too deeply into this gap in poll results.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.