Higher Education & Political Affiliation: Does it Matter? Yes, and No…

About six-in-ten Americans (61%) say the higher education system in the United States is going in the wrong direction, according to a new 2018 Pew Research Center survey. Political party affiliation seems to have an impact on their perceptions in many respects, but not in all. Here are some highlights:

Political views influence voters’ perceptions about higher education.

  • Nearly 3/4 of those with conservative views believe that higher education is headed in the wrong direction:
    • Republican leaning: 73%
    • Democrat leaning: 52%
  • There’s a big difference in the viewpoints regarding faculty influence: Professors are bringing their political and social views into the classroom, and it’s having a negative impact on higher education.
    • Republican leaning: 79%
    • Democrat leaning: 17%
  • Conservatives think there’s too much emphasis on being politically correct: Colleges and universities are too concerned about protecting students from viewpoints they might find offensive.
    • Republican learning: 79%
    • Democrat leaning: 31%


Age influences perception about faculty impact.

Regardless of their political affiliation, more older Americans place blame at the feet of faculty for problems in higher education. However, those who are Republican-leaning feel more strongly than their counterparts:

  • 65+ years (Republicans 96%, Democrats 32%)
  • 50-64 years (Republicans 85%, Democrats 15%)
  • 35-49 years (Republicans 73%, Democrats 10%)
  • 18-34 years (Republicans 58%, Democrats 19%)

Regardless of their political leanings, everyone thinks going to college costs too much.

  • There’s lots of common ground when it comes to affordability: Higher education tuition costs are too high.
    • Democrat learning: 92%
    • Republican leaning: 77%

Most agree that higher education needs to do a better job of preparing graduates for the workforce.

  • Regardless of political party affiliation, Americans recognize the importance of a well-rounded education that includes career readiness: Students aren’t getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.
    • Republican leaning: 73%
    • Democrat leaning: 56%


So, what does all this mean? And how can we use these insights to improve higher education for all Americans?

Results from this year’s Pew Research Poll prove something we already knew: There are definitely some big differences in the way people view higher education, depending on their political party affiliation. However, there are some areas in which nearly everyone can agree, such as:

1.)    We have room for improvement in higher education. We can agree that we have some of the best colleges and universities anywhere. Students from all around the world come to the United States to attend our institutions because they want the benefit of an American education. However, despite all the positives we can place in the “plus” column, we as a nation know we can do even better when it comes to providing exceptional higher education experiences. More importantly, we want to do better, because we take our role as a global educational leader seriously.

2.)    We must find a way to reduce the cost of attending college. It’s true that nearly everything costs more today than it did 25 years ago; a quick trip to the grocery store, building center, or car dealership will confirm that. It’s the same with higher education. Granted, there are some expenses over which colleges and universities have no control. However, there are areas where costs could be reduced, such as offering students the option of purchasing digital textbooks rather than hard copies, or partnering with other universities for more purchasing power. We can also look at fresh ways to cut or freeze tuition and expand work study programs. Paid internships sponsored by workforce partners would be of tremendous value in making college more affordable.

3.)    Once they’re enrolled, institutions must be committed to each student’s success. Colleges and universities are great at getting students enrolled, but many feel it’s up to the student to succeed once they begin their studies. Wrong! When a college admits a student, it should partner with that learner to support his or her success, from the time of matriculation to graduation. This partnership should represent a “WIT” approach–Whatever It Takes—to help that student succeed and graduate. Does that mean watering down the curriculum? No! Does it mean handing out passing grades when they aren’t deserved? Of course not! But when an institution enrolls a student, it means that the student has demonstrated a propensity for success based on that institution’s admission requirements. When a college accepts a student’s money they should provide them with the kind of academic support they need to succeed. For example, helping students to succeed through mentoring programs can provide a much-needed safety net for at-risk students, and it’s truly a “win-win” for all parties involved. When a student is successful, they stay in school. When they stay in school they graduate. When they graduate, they are able to attain their professional goals and provide for their family. And when these things happen, college retention, graduation, and satisfaction rates all increase, which keeps accreditors happy. Given all this, why wouldn’t every higher education institution in the nation want to do all they could to support the success of their students?

4.)    Higher education must revisit their curriculum and place a greater emphasis on real-world application of content knowledge. There needs to be a proper balance between theory and application, and students should receive multiple opportunities to practice what they are learning within structured field experiences and internships regardless of their major. Moreover, they must receive the benefit of supervision and support from a qualified workforce mentor. As a result, students will develop important skills sets, establish positive relationships, and are able to connect what they’re learning in the classroom with the real world.

Let’s Put Those Differences Aside…

While it’s certainly true that Republicans and Democrats view certain aspects of higher education quite differently, it’s also true that there are many areas where we can agree. Let’s start there. Let’s agree to put our political labels on a shelf, remember our shared commitment to academic excellence, and work together to make our higher education system even better for all Americans.

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in quality assurance, educator preparation, and empowerment-based learning. She supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as accreditation, competency-based education, and teacher/school leader prep programs design.  Roberta also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com).