Today’s extreme political polarization has penetrated most institutions, from the family to higher education. Indeed, higher education is perhaps the last societal institution to feel the intensity of today’s political struggles. Recent polls show that Americans are sharply divided along political party lines with regard to higher education. Those divisions occur in terms of the value of a higher education, its political influences, and who should bear the costs, to name just a few dimensions.
Higher education has positive effects on the individual, the family, organizations, and society at large. Individuals with degrees have grown in terms of personal development, knowledge, and technical skills. They have, in general, developed their human faculties beyond those of individuals with a high school education or less. To be sure, educated persons enhance the operations and development of organizations, whether public or private. Educated employees enable private organizations to compete more effectively in the economy, and the economy and society benefit from an educated population.
Differences in perspectives regarding higher education tend to align along political party lines, with Republicans more likely to hold negative views of higher education than Democrats. While Republicans tend to believe that colleges and universities have a negative influence on what is going on in society, Democrats believe that these institutions have a positive effect on society. Both, tend to view colleges as doing well in preparing students for the workforce, and that success in life is easier with a college degree. However, they tend to differ on the purpose of a college education, with Republicans more likely to emphasize specific skills, and Democrats more likely to emphasize personal growth.
The divisions regarding the political influences of a higher education center on the differences between liberal and conservative perspectives. Conservatives hold the view that universities are filled with liberal professors who impose their views on students. They also claim that conservative perspectives are undertaught in colleges and universities because conservative faculty members are a numeric minority in the academy. Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to have confidence that faculty members act in the public interest.
The costs of a college education have increased considerably in recent decades at the same time that states have decreased funding for college and universities. Concomitantly, student debt has seen dramatic growth, reaching more than a trillion dollars a few years ago. Moreover, public colleges and universities today receive the majority of their revenue from tuition rather than from government funds. The reason states have cut funding to colleges and universities is related to the question as to who should pay for a college education.
Some might argue that increasing Medicare and incarceration costs have necessitated funding cuts to higher education, but the matter is more complicated than that. It involves funding priorities, and cuts to government revenues through repeated tax cuts. These cuts are part of a free market fundamentalist movement that demands small government, and which forces reduction in government size through tax cuts. This movement has redefined higher education from a public good to a private good. As such, it is the individual who benefits from a college education, and it is the individual who should pay for it.
Confidence in higher education has decreased sharply in recent years. Both Republicans and Democrats believe that higher education is moving in the wrong direction. Both believe that tuition costs are too high, but differ on whether students are getting the skills needed for occupational success, overprotection of students from perspectives they might find offensive, and faculty taking their political views into the classroom. Republicans are more likely to view these issues as reasons why higher education is moving in the wrong direction.
Americans recognize that access to higher education is decreasing, especially due to costs. There are other reasons, however, why access is decreasing, and these include rising admissions standards and the shift in the uses of financial aid. Admissions processes are used to improve the quality of the student body to meet demands for improved institutional status, rank, and prestige, even as the processes are increasing inequalities in society. The same is occurring with financial aid, which has shifted from meeting financial need to rewarding merit, which is a function of socio-economic differences.
Polarized perspectives on higher education are embedded in the broader political ideologies that divide Americans. As the demographic shift continues to unfold, overall enrollments in higher education will continue to decline, but enrollments of students of color will continue to increase. The question that remains is whether the problem of access will be addressed. Recently, cities have begun to establish “promise” programs that cover some or all of the costs of a college education; some universities have developed programs to provide access to students who meet achievement standards but lack the resources to pay the costs; and at least one state, New Mexico, is attempting to offer free tuition to all its students.