Monday, August 3, 2020

College Doesn’t Change Students’ Politics, but It Does Make Them More Tolerant of Difference

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to be part of a very good conversation with a U.S. Senator who expressed concerns that higher-education institutions were marginalizing conservative views. Contemporary media certainly propagate that assumption, but the conclusion is one of anecdotes, which could be just as easily framed in the opposite direction.


As Taylor Carr wrote in “Is There a Liberal Bias in Higher Education?” in Medium, “News stories pop up frequently of ‘assaults on free speech’ allegedly taking place in campus protests. Though these are usually isolated incidents reported on with little in the way of thorough detail, the impression is easily given that they are part of a wider national epidemic.”


I have been reading American Conservatism: Reclaiming the Intellectual Tradition, an anthology that includes writings ranging from Henry Adams and Henry Cabot Lodge to Reinhold Niebuhr and George Santayana. At every turn, I am reminded that it is our institutions that keep this work alive and engage each new generation in these ideas.


In the past two decades there have been shifts among the two parties related to political affiliation with academic attainment and perception of the value of higher education, but this appears to be independent of any ideological impact of higher education.


According to a recent Pew study, between 2012 and 2019, Republicans who believe colleges have a positive effect on the U.S. has moved from 53% to 33% while Democrats have remained steady at 67%.


According to another Pew study, historically, the majority of college graduates identified as Republican. Equilibrium was achieved around 2002, and since about 2014, a growing majority of college graduates have identified as Democrats. Among Americans who have attained a post-graduate education, the majority were Republican until 2002, and a Democratic majority has grown steadily since.


Despite those shifts, there hasn’t been a significant ideological shift of our graduates. They continue to be fairly centrist. According to the Higher Education Research Institute, 60% of American college professors identify as liberal. This is not reflected in their impact on the ideologies of their students.


The authors of, The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education, which explores the impact of a college education on the political perspectives of students, found that students typically graduate with a political leaning very similar to when they enrolled. The authors offer a number of possible explanations including intellectual resilience among our students and a professoriate committed to providing a balanced experience in the classroom.


“Does College Turn People into Liberals?” a study published in The Conversation, surveyed over 7,000 students from more than 120 higher-education institutions in their first and second years. Forty-eight percent of the students reported that they viewed liberals more favorably after a year on campus and that 50% viewed conservatives more favorably. The same survey reported that 31% had a more negative view of conservatives, and 30% had a more negative view of liberals.


The initial takeaway is that these are very balanced statistics, but the really important element is that the favorable numbers on both sides are significantly greater. The collegiate experience opens students up to a broader view of the world and the issues that affect us all, which will hopefully lead us to find common ground as we attempt to move forward as a nation.


Let us hope that, like our students, our leaders and we can grow in our appreciation of the perspectives of all our neighbors and respond with compassion and a renewed spirit of collaboration.


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