University of Georgia students cheer as they move their tassels during the 2018 spring undergraduate commencement ceremony at Sanford Stadium in Athens.
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Liberals and conservatives divide over value of investing in higher ed

Are liberals in America more willing to invest in higher education than conservatives?

A political divide shows up in a survey released today by Teachers College, Columbia University. In the survey, “Americans’ Views of Higher Education as a Public and Private Good,” 56 percent of self-identified liberals say public spending on higher education has been an excellent investment, compared with 32 percent of conservatives. 

Nearly half of liberals also maintain higher education has contributed a lot to scientific advances that benefit society, a viewed shared by only 31 percent of conservatives. Thirty-four percent of liberals say higher education contributes a great deal to personal enrichment and growth, compared to 23 percent of conservatives.

While 26 percent of liberals agree that higher education contributes a lot to the wealth and success of graduates, only 20 percent of conservatives think so. A third of liberals say higher education contributes a lot to America’s national prosperity and development, compared to a fifth of conservatives.

The liberal/conservative gap is echoed by an urban/rural split. Urbanites are more likely to value investment in higher education than rural residents. A greater percentage of urban residents hold college degrees and are in the workforce, so it is likely they see the benefits of higher education. Another factor: There are more young people in urban areas.

(As an aside, I have found rural Georgians express less concerns when a candidate, even for governor, lacks a college degree. In a recent conversation, a Republican attorney in north Georgia told me, while still undecided between Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp, she was not overly bothered with Cagle’s lack of a degree. Experience, she said, matters as much as education.  Kemp is a University of Georgia graduate.)

According to a Pew Research Center report on U.S. urban, rural and suburban demographic trends released in May: 

Today, 35 percent of urban residents and 31 percent in the suburbs have a bachelor’s degree or more education, compared with 19 percent in rural counties. Rural areas also trail urban and suburban areas in their share of residents with postgraduate degrees.

In urban and suburban counties overall, college graduates outnumber residents with a high school diploma and no further education, but in the total rural population there are more high school graduates than college graduates. 

Rural counties also trail other types of communities, especially urban counties, on key measures of employment of prime-age workers – those 25 to 54 years old. For example, 71 percent of rural residents of prime working age are employed, compared with 77 percent in both urban and suburban counties.

The number of employed adults in this age group (as well as the total number of prime working-age residents, employed or not) rose in urban areas as well as in suburban and small metro areas since 2000, but declined in rural counties overall. Rural counties now are home to a smaller share of the nation’s prime-age workers than in 2000.

The growth in the prime-age working population was particularly sharp in urban areas. As a result, urban counties now are home to a larger share of the nation’s prime-age workers than in 2000.

Here is the official summary of the report on how Americans view higher education:

Seventy-six percent of the respondents see public spending on higher education in the United States as an excellent or good investment, returning benefits to individuals and society as a whole, about 17 percent called it a fair investment, and only seven percent said it has not been a good investment, according to new survey released today from The Public Mind: How Americans View Education, Psychology and Health, at Teachers College, Columbia University. 

Americans are similarly confident that a college education benefits individual graduates through personal enrichment and growth, and the wealth and success that a college diploma can bring. The surprise in the findings, said Noah D. Drezner, Associate Professor and Program Director in Higher and Postsecondary Education at Teachers College and lead author of the survey, “Americans’ Views of Higher Education as a Public and Private Good,” is that the perceived impact on society is just as big as the believed benefits for college graduates.

Drezner says the societal benefits, or public good, of higher education institutions “are often overlooked in contemporary discourse that is normally focused on the personal benefits to individuals, such as jobs, salaries or return to individuals on their investment of tuition and lost income. What’s exciting about what we found is that Americans have a high regard for the value of higher education to our society.”

Released today, the national survey of more than 3,000 adult respondents is the second installment of The Public Mind: How Americans View Education, Psychology and Health, launched in June to measure Americans’ opinions about issues across the College’s three main areas of research and teaching. The program’s inaugural survey, “Americans’ Views of Stakeholders in Education,” released in June, measured the public’s views of different stakeholders in K-12 education.

The higher education survey comes at a potentially critical time for higher education, as Congress considers federal funding cuts as part of the Higher Education reauthorization bill. A public opinion poll showing that Americans support public spending on higher education “could shape the willingness of elected officials and policymakers to support public investment in higher education,” Drezner says.

Additional results included: 

Eighty-three percent say higher education institutions contribute a lot or somewhat to scientific advances that benefit American society and the public good, while 73 percent say they contribute a lot or somewhat to national prosperity and development.

Fewer respondents (76 percent) say higher education institutions contribute a lot or somewhat to graduates’ personal enrichment and growth, while 72 percent believe a higher education contributes a lot or somewhat to advances in the personal wealth and success of individual graduates.

Meanwhile, 61 percent say college contributes a lot or somewhat to civic participation – considered by Drezner to be both a public and private good.

There were significant differences in gender, race and ethnicity, age groups, and geographic location in respondents’ ratings of higher education as a good use of public funds:

Women are significantly more likely than men, and younger Americans more likely than older ones, to view public spending on higher education as an excellent investment. In addition, urban Americans value investment in education more than their suburban and rural counterparts.

About half of black and Latinx respondents – groups that historically have faced barriers to obtaining a college degree – say public spending on higher education has been an excellent investment. Among whites and Asians, the figure drops to 41 percent.

Nearly half (48 percent) of adults aged 18-44 say public spending on higher education has been worthwhile. This figure drops to 40 percent for respondents aged 50-65.

The survey, which Drezner coauthored with Teachers College’s Oren Pizmony-Levy, assistant professor of International and Comparative Education, and Aaron Pallas, Arthur I. Gates Professor of Sociology & Education, also comes as colleges and universities in general – and the liberal arts in particular – have been criticized as too expensive, elitist, politically liberal – even irrelevant in contemporary America. 

The study provides evidence that this debate is most heated between liberals and conservatives, with 56 percent of self-identified liberals saying public spending on higher education has been an excellent investment, compared with 45 percent of conservatives and 32 percent of moderates

“One open question is what underlies the ideological difference in attitudes toward higher education,” Pizmony-Levy says. “Our study cannot fully answer this question, but there are a couple of possible reasons for this difference. For example, political conservatism is associated with a preference for the status quo and traditionalism. American higher education, however, typically challenges the economic status quo and facilitates social mobility.”

The Public Mind: How Americans View Education, Psychology and Health conducts and analyzes periodic public opinion surveys on topics related to the three main areas of inquiry at Teachers College. Funded by the Teachers College Provost’s Investment Fund and drawing on the infrastructure and survey research expertise at the College, The Public Mind contributes to policy debates by introducing a new source of reliable and valid public opinion data and analysis.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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