Why the GOP should support public higher education
Our great public colleges and universities have created remarkable public goods for the nation. Recommitment to them is essential to the law.
The public colleges and universities of our country – engines for opportunities, mobility and knowledge generation – have been envied by the world for decades. Yet today many states, often those with Republican-led legislatures, are finding ways to reduce funding for these critically important institutions. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association found that state funding is lower across the country than it was immediately after the Great Recession.
The cut in funding for these educational institutions will cost the country much more in the long run than it will add to state budgets. Aside from the positive economic and social benefits offered by higher education, public colleges and universities have a far more balanced student body than private ones. If the GOP really cares about the diversity of viewpoints and issues of economic and social mobility, then Republicans should help public universities thrive.
Republicans may be quick to assume college students are decidedly leftist today. But a recent College Pulse poll of nearly a thousand college students shows they are not a democratic monolith. In fact, only 37 percent of college students surveyed identify themselves as strong or weak Democrats, while only 11 percent identify themselves as strong or weak Republicans. For the Democrats, this is still not a slam dunk as the majority of college students (53 percent) identify as independent, slim, or something entirely different.
The gap between college-aged Democrats and Republicans narrows when one focuses on students in public colleges and universities. About a third of students in public colleges identify themselves as strong or weak Democrats, while only 12 percent identify themselves as strong or weak Republicans. That nearly half (46 percent) of public college students describe themselves as either independent or lean means public schools are not liberal strongholds, even if liberal administrators outnumber conservatives almost 12 to 1.
While public universities host politically diverse student bodies, private colleges in the US lack the same balance. Today, a majority of students at private colleges and universities identify as democratic (52 percent). Only 8 percent of private students describe themselves as Republicans – less than half of those in public institutions – and 32 percent of private students describe themselves as independents or leaner. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans is significantly higher at private universities than at public universities.
With Democrats in private colleges now nearly 7 to 1 superior to their Republican counterparts, private college students can struggle to find the diversity of opinion essential to their development as critical thinkers. This is much less of a problem in public institutions, where students can have much more diverse heterodox experiences. Conservative and centrist students in public schools are not so outnumbered that they may self-censor at a lower level than in private schools. That way, students can grapple with real differences and debate accordingly – and they can potentially welcome a much deeper group of speakers, clubs, and experiences.
The goals of higher education, including pursuing truth and creating an environment in which the free exchange of ideas with the best winners in a competitive market, can best be achieved in our public colleges and universities, for there is far there is more student diversity. Students may find that they can question, speak, and share their views and ideas more openly and honestly in classrooms, as well as in their dining rooms, dormitories, and student centers. You may have an opportunity to learn, debate, and even disagree with American principles.
I should also add that students at private and public universities not only differ in their policies, but also show different levels of political commitment. Whether they vote, tweet, protest or donate, three quarters of students at private universities state that they are more or more politically active, compared to 62 percent of students at public institutions. Republicans should note that students at both public and private colleges in the United States are not in love with the country’s top two leaders. While a majority of students at private universities are in favor of Biden assuming his office as president (52 percent), only 41 percent of students at public universities feel the same way. Similarly, Vice President Harris, whose iconic appointment received early support from Gen Zers, has the approval of 45 percent of private college students and only 29 percent of those in public colleges.
With stories of protests and rejections regularly making the news from elite private universities in New England and the West Coast, America’s colleges and universities are often perceived as bastions of “awakened” progressive students seeking to tear down America’s sacred institutions. And while some extremely progressive students in some schools – including many of my own, Sarah Lawrence College, New York – carry such charges, it is a mistake to assume that these young social justice campaigners represent the majority of our nation’s college students, especially those at public colleges and universities.
What the GOP should be doing to support public colleges and universities is promoting the operational efficiencies that Republicans have always embraced and one of the greatest sources of not only bloat and spending on campus, but also the source of many progressive ones and aroused impulses: university administrations. Not only has this administrative class grown significantly faster than enrollment and faculty, but this powerful group is also far more progressive and interested in promoting a political agenda than even the liberal faculties our students teach, and certainly the more ideologically balanced student body.
Governing the administration would cut costs significantly and give students a better opportunity to stay in canteens, dormitories, and the far too many “centers” that dot the campus landscape, where students are regularly told what they think and how they feel to share with others, a better way to think for yourself. The power of the Diversity, Justice and Inclusion bureaucrats can be harnessed for the benefit of our public finances and the growth of our students, and Republicans would be well served if they focused their efforts on this and continued to allow one of the largest institutions in our country thrive.
In short, while private colleges are dominated by politically active liberals, students at publicly funded colleges and universities find political diversity and can contribute a wide range of ideas. These institutions are not left bastions; They teach our students to learn, develop critical thinking skills, and live better lives for themselves. And they can be made even better by cutting administrative bloat. Our great public institutions have created remarkable public goods for the nation and the world. It would be absolutely a mistake to withdraw them, thereby diminishing the impact they have on their students, their communities, and the myriad public spin-offs that spring from these sacred civic institutions.
Samuel J. Abrams is Professor of Politics at Sarah Lawrence College and Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.