Will Distrust of Colleges Increase Our Economic and Political Divide?

(photo courtesy of Nathaniel Givens…I think)

Since the 2016 Election, a lot of effort has been devoted to understanding why different groups voted the way they did and what it says about our society. That analysis is interesting, but incredibly complex, since so many factors play a part in why someone votes a particular way. For example, the key Midwest states that helped swing the election could have been decided based on a desire to bring back coal jobs, a general distrust of Clinton, or resentment that Obama didn’t do enough to address their concerns. Who knows?

What we can see is growing social divide in how people view themselves and the respective parties. This effect, known as polarization, can lead to extreme positions, which aren’t always good for making sound decisions. Polarization is created when a group of like-minded people find themselves isolated from external positions and drive the members of the group into a more extreme version of the mindset that caused them to enter the group in the first place. For example, if you took a room full of new mothers, some of whom believe that breast feeding is the best way to nurture a baby and others of whom believe using formula is fine, and separated them into groups based on their viewpoints, you would find the members of each group will push the group as a whole to more vehement versions of the initial viewpoints.


I want to focus on a particular version of this polarization that is manifesting in the U.S. right now, based on political affiliation. According to a recent survey, people who self-identify as Republicans are becoming more and more convinced that colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the country. Here is the chart of this shift:

Note the years. Up until late 2015, Republicans saw colleges as mostly a positive in American life. They were more suspicious (as a group) than Democrats, but seemed to acknowledge that higher education was a good thing, overall. A vocal minority, of course, has accused colleges of liberal indoctrination for at least as long as talk radio has been a thing, but only in the last couple of years has this mistrust surged.

What has changed? I’m not sure, and I’m guessing there are lots of theories. While there is some evidence that conservatives in the U.S. (again, not all, but a certain strain…this is the last time I’ll qualify this, but assume it in other cases) have intentionally undermined the very notion of science for largely political reasons. There is also a tendency to associate higher education with elitism, an idea that was certainly in play during President George W. Bush’s terms. Again, though, the chart above shows a dramatic shift in recent years; so we need to look at something more recent.

Perhaps it’s the Climate Change Denialist movement, which has presented science as a monolithic, agenda-based movement that is somehow involved in a vast conspiracy to kill coal jobs (for reasons unknown….big money from somewhere is the usual claim). Scientists are associated with universities, and so universities are bad? Or maybe it’s the fact that professors lean to the left, despite the fact that there is little evidence that this results in indoctrinating students. Still, even the perception could be the problem here.

Ultimately, the reasons don’t matter, because the view is what is important. The U.S. has a growing inequality problem. Wages have been in stagnation since the 1980s, though this story is a bit complicated. What is less in doubt is that there is an economic divide between rich and poor that is not improving. What we also know is that while college is no longer a guarantee of a well-paying, fulfilling job, it is still most often a necessary step to receiving such a job. Put in logic terms, it is necessary, but not sufficient for getting a job for the average person.

If Republican parents discourage their children from going to college in fear of some sort of liberal indoctrination, this will be a huge detriment to those children. I do not mean to suggest that college is a panacea for society’s ills. I could write a series of articles on problems with Higher Education and the ways in which it needs reform. However, it is still the best way to get ahead in life, especially if you come from a lower class background. That degree opens doors for you.

Many of the states that tend to vote Republican are among the lowest in the country in terms of education levels, quality of education, and percentage of higher education. A sharp rise in skepticism toward education will only exacerbate this issue, creating a deeper divide in the political tribalism that exists in the U.S.

So, how do we avoid this? I’m not sure. The best way, ironically, would be through education! Unfortunately, the current President does not seem to value universal education policies. The appointment of Betsy Devos doesn’t help. Her policies in Michigan were disastrous for the lower classes, and really the state in general. She is a proponent of privatizing colleges and universities, and even K-12 schooling, which tends to favor the wealthy who can afford the fees associated with privatization.

I would usually say that parents should encourage their children to get a college degree. Mine certainly did, and I was raised in a family where a secondary education was pretty much assumed. But if the only parents doing this are liberal parents, we will end up with a country in which conservatives are less educated and perhaps continue to resent those who are more educated. That’s not a good recipe for working together in the future.

Unfortunately, this article is based mostly on pointing out the potential for future problems in this area. If I had better solutions, I would offer them. If you have some, I’d like to hear them!