College is a dividing line in politics. Here’s what you need to know.

The idea of ​​college as a fundamental political division in the US has generated a lot of discussion in the academic world over the past six years. The high-stakes midterm elections will take place on Tuesday, with the college again as the backdrop.

On the surface, the divide is simple: People with college degrees are increasingly voting Democratic, while people who didn’t attend college are increasingly voting Republican. Similarly, the divide in opinions about college itself is widening: Republicans tend to question the value of higher education, while Democrats tend to support it.

In 2020, 56 percent of college-educated voters supported Democrats, a slight increase from 2016. And 56 percent of voters with a high school education or less supported Republicans.

Before 2016, most people in both parties had a positive view of colleges. As of this year, 72 percent of Democrats held that view, but only 43 percent of Republicans.

But what is behind the gap is more complicated — like Chronicle wrote in 2020.

This is what the most recent data tell us.

A 2022 New America survey found that 73 percent of Democrats believe colleges have a positive impact on the nation. Only 37 percent of Republicans said the same. Among all Americans, the share of those who believe a higher level is leading the country in a positive direction has fallen by 14 percentage points since 2020, to 55 percent.

Americans across the political spectrum agree that a college degree is valuable to an individual, and both Democrats and Republicans have expressed concern about the rising cost of higher education. But they are divided on who should pay for it. Among Republicans, 63 percent say students should pay for their degrees. That’s compared to 77 percent of Democrats who say the government should fund higher education, according to a New America report.

An earlier study by the Pew Research Center also showed declining support for higher education. The survey found that in 2019, 38 percent of American adults believed that colleges had a negative impact on the country, up from 26 percent in 2012. The shift was almost entirely due to Republicans and independents leaning Republican, while Democratic views remained stable.

At the heart of the divide are white voters. Most white voters with less education voted Republican in 2016. However, a majority of white voters with higher levels of education preferred Democrats, a shift from most previous elections. The gender gap has become more acute: A The Wall Street Journal/ A 2018 NBC News poll found the biggest gap between white college-educated women who favored a majority-Democrat Congress and white men without degrees who favored a majority-Republican Congress.

“Winners and Losers”

There’s a new book that cuts to the heart of the college divide: After the Ivory Tower fell: How college shattered the American dream and blew up our politics—and how to fix it (HarperCollins, 2022), wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Will Bunch. In the book, Bunch argues that higher educational attainment is a major source of contemporary resentment that has permeated Republican politics.

Higher Edition is the main source of the modern resentment that has seeped into Republican politics.

During a session at the Chronicle Festival last week, Bunch focused on a key question driving his work: “Why do working-class people have this attitude toward people with college degrees?”

After World War II, higher education was generally considered a public good, Bunch said. That began to change during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which fueled campus protests and pressured colleges to increase access for women and people of color. In the 1970s, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan began promoting the idea that colleges were liberal indoctrination factories, fueling a growing conservative backlash.

Today, Bunch said, the college is plagued by the student debt crisis, declining federal and state funding and a perception among many people who didn’t earn degrees — some of whom live a stone’s throw from their community college — that the institutions are wildly out of touch.

Bunch suggested that colleges help develop a system “that’s maybe a little less obsessed with creating winners and losers” — in other words, a shift toward meritocracy and opportunity.

What else contributes to the political divide over the university? Research has shown that a college degree, especially in the social sciences, can mediate a person’s beliefs about race and gender in ways that make people less likely to vote for Republican candidates.

This dynamic was highlighted in the 2016 election, which was characterized by “extraordinarily explicit rhetoric of race and gender,” according to an article by Tatishe M. Nteta, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The paper found that people with college degrees were less likely to express negative views about racial groups than people without degrees.

Republicans and Democrats agree that rural colleges are major employers in these areas. But people in “rural and Rust Belt America” ​​— areas that have voted staunchly Republican over the years — “have come to view higher education as an otherworldly place whose customs and demographics are at odds with their way of life,” wrote David Scobey. Chronicle in 2019. Scobey is the Director of Putting Theory into Practice, a national project to increase civic engagement.

However, there are areas of commonality at the higher level.

Eighty-six percent of Americans agree across all political views that higher education can help advance people’s careers, according to a Public Agenda 2022 survey. 52 percent of Americans believe higher education strengthens the economy. And 51 percent of Americans think democracy would be stronger if more people got college degrees.

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