“A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.”
—Pew Research Center
This find from a new Pew study should be a cause for alarm no matter which side of the political divide you live on. Set aside the obvious value of colleges and universities as economic engines that advance research and train workers to apply it to industry. Forget how impossible it would be to have a working democracy without an educated electorate.
Let’s just look at the good a college diploma does for the financial well-being of those who have one hanging on the wall.
A study by the New York Fed found that a college graduate earns about $300,000 more over her lifetime than a person with no college degree. And that’s after subtracting the costs of college, weighing in the paychecks she misses while in school, and adjusting for inflation.
Dig further into the Pew data, and you’ll find an interesting wrinkle: Lower income Republicans have a far more positive view of college education than do wealthier Republicans.
“Among Republicans,” the study notes, “nearly half of those with family incomes of less than $30,000 (46%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, compared with only about a third (32%) of those with higher incomes.”
This gap in attitudes might be explained by one of college’s biggest benefits: economic mobility. For kids from lower-income families, the difference between getting a college degree and not getting one is stark. A 2013 College Board study found that nearly half of young people with no college degree from families in the bottom 20% remain right there at the bottom. On the flipside, 90% of college graduates from the same economic background move up. (College Board, 2013, p. 22) This by no means tells us that college is the great equalizer—graduates from wealthier families benefit far more from a degree—but it is a more or less trustworthy path to a better income.
Over the past couple of decades I’ve watched certain politicians smear college campuses as bastions of elitism. The Pew study shows that their rhetoric is having an effect. Unfortunately, demonizing colleges will largely hurt those who don’t—or can’t—attend one.