Is College Worth It? Voters Are Split.
This invisible divide is reshaping politics.
This article is part of our Invisible Divides series.
Welcome to Invisible Divides, a series exploring the profound differences in worldview between Democrats and Republicans. These beliefs about education, religion, gender, race and political extremism align with partisanship — but run much deeper. Differences like these don’t just influence the ways Democrats and Republicans vote, but also how they think about their place in America. And they help explain why opposing views on important issues today seem increasingly irreconcilable.
When Dale Nicholls started college in 1984, he soon realized books weren’t for him. So he entered the workforce, started a job as a truck driver and eventually worked his way up to owning and running his own trucking company. His professional experience, he said, taught him more than what he’d have been able to learn in school.
“A lot of the degrees people are getting, there’s no use for them in the real world, and so you’re finding a lot of people come out of college and then can’t get a job because their degrees are no good,” he said in an interview with FiveThirtyEight.
Nicholls, now 60, doesn’t believe that everyone should go to college no matter how much it costs and no matter how much debt students take on. This belief puts him on one side of a deep and growing divide in the American electorate regarding attitudes about higher education and its value.
FiveThirtyEight has partnered with PerryUndem and YouGov to survey likely voters on how deep these types of fissures run.1 In this first installment of our series exploring the invisible divides in America — the differences in worldview that shape how people vote and think about their place in America — we look at the education divide. For the past two decades, a voter’s level of education has become an increasingly important predictor in how he or she votes. But we found that the divide is about more than just the level of education someone has: Americans have diverging attitudes about the role higher education itself plays in American society. Like other divides we’ll be exploring, they help explain why Republicans and Democrats seem unable to find common ground on so many issues.
Since the late 1990s, college-educated voters have been moving towards the Democratic Party while voters without a college degree have become more decidedly Republican-leaning. By the time former President Barack Obama left office, those lines had solidified: A majority of college-educated voters identified as Democrats, while a majority of voters without a college degree identified as Republicans. In the 2016 election, education was a better predictor of who voted for former President Donald Trump than income.
As this divide deepened, views on higher education became even more partisan. That has influenced how politicians talk about higher education, as well as their policy approaches to it. During his administration, Trump not only launched attacks on colleges, especially those he deemed elite — despite himself having graduated from the University of Pennsylvania — but began accusing them of spreading liberal propaganda. “Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education,” he wrote on Twitter in 2020.
In the FiveThirtyEight/PerryUndem/YouGov survey — which Nicholls participated in — 51 percent of respondents agreed with the idea that “a college education is the best way to get ahead in the U.S.” But agreement differed significantly by respondent’s partisan affiliations: Seventy-one percent of self-identified Democrats agreed while 37 percent of self-identified Republicans did.
Respondents were also asked a series of questions to gauge how they felt about higher education. Fifty-seven percent of respondents disagreed with the statement “college makes you lose common sense,” while 37 percent agreed. Of those who agreed, 65 percent planned to “definitely” vote for the Republican candidate in the upcoming midterms, while 12 percent of those who agreed planned to “definitely” vote for the Democratic candidate.2
More than 4 in 5 Republicans agreed with the statements that “most college professors teach liberal propaganda” and “high schools are trying to teach liberal propaganda,” compared with 17 and 16 percent of Democrats, respectively. Those who agreed with one of these statements generally also agreed with the other (90 percent). There weren’t huge differences in how people answered these questions based on level of education (except for people with postgraduate degrees). Instead, it was partisanship that mattered.
American Turning Point: Politics in public education
Voters’ views on college often aligned with how they’d respond to other, seemingly unrelated questions. Those who agreed with statements like “college makes you lose common sense,” were less likely to think climate change (35 percent) and racism or racial inequality (40 percent) were problems than those who disagreed (both 85 percent),3 and less likely to think that high school students should learn about sexism and gender inequality (32 percent) and systemic racism (28 percent).4 They were also more likely to think inflation and the national economy would be worse a year from now, independent of their household income levels, according to analysis by Duncan Gans, a senior research analyst with PerryUndem.
This hints that the division is about more than simply getting a college education or having a higher income. “College” and, relatedly, “elitism” are concepts that seem to be linked to otherwise unrelated ideas — like support for LGBTQ+ rights or racial justice — which have, in turn, become associated with the identity of the Democratic Party. Increasingly, it seems that when politicians like Trump rail against the elite — a word that might otherwise mean a level of wealth and power he, himself, has — it’s meant as a cultural designation, not a socioeconomic one.
Sharon Martin, who is 71 and lives in Virginia, participated in an online focus group as part of our poll. “I believe the young people go into college to get an education but instead are taught how to think as a group,” she wrote. “They are taught, or should I say instructed, by professors that I believe are pushing their ideals and desires.”
Jim Burke, a 61-year-old from Pennsylvania who spoke with FiveThirtyEight after taking part in the survey, agreed. He’s a pharmacist who went to a Catholic college and became conservative after having children. “My daughter went to college as a staunch Republican and she came out a liberal Democrat,” he said. “Totally due to her education.” (In 2020, voters under 30 were the most Democratic-leaning age group, although this age group is less likely to vote than older groups.)
It’s easy enough to see how this divide manifests in American society, as concern over what is taught in colleges has also trickled down to lower levels of education. Over the past two years, PEN America has been tracking laws that aim to prevent public college professors and primary and secondary education teachers from teaching “divisive” concepts, which may include racism, sexism or gender identity. Fourteen states have passed such laws, but bills have been introduced across the country. States have also passed laws restricting LGBTQ+ students’ access to school sports and health care and banned school libraries from carrying books on subjects deemed controversial. This fall, a Pennsylvania school district pulled the “Girls Who Code” book series, meant to encourage girls of color to enter careers in tech. Across the country, many Republican candidates have made battles over what’s taught in schools central to their campaigns.
President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan has illuminated the depths of this anti-elitism divide. In September, about a month after Biden announced his plan to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for certain borrowers, 22 Republican governors sent him a letter asking him to withdraw the plan. They argued it “rewards the rich and punishes the poor” by taxing hourly workers who hadn’t gone to college just to benefit higher earners who had. (Of course, not everyone who owes student loans is a higher earner — the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 87 percent of the debt cancellation benefits will go to those who earn less than $75,000 annually.)
It’s not surprising that polls show voters divided on student loan forgiveness by party. In a Daily Kos/Civiqs Poll from August, right after Biden’s plan was announced, 88 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of independent voters disapproved, while 88 percent of Democrats approved. A Quinnipiac University poll, also from the end of August, found that 81 percent of Republicans disapproved while 88 percent of Democrats approved.
But Rachel Fishman, the acting director with the Education Policy program at New America, said there are partisan divides on whether the government should be funding colleges and universities at all. New America’s annual report measuring attitudes about higher education found this year that 77 percent of Democrats thought the government should be more responsible for funding higher education, while 63 percent of Republicans said students should be more responsible.
“You can kind of piece together from there how the subsequent answers on questions about funding and value kind of fall into place from that notion,” Fishman said.
In the New America survey, Republicans viewed attending college as something students themselves benefit from, but did not necessarily see colleges as something that benefited communities or the country as a whole. This could have implications for many battles to come, as Democrats want to increase federal funding for higher education and make at least some colleges free, while Republicans are more focused on scaling back student loan forgiveness and on curriculum battles.
It could also matter for bigger questions, like whether high school graduates should have equal access to higher education regardless of their ability to pay; whether and how to fund alternatives to colleges and universities; how to best prepare students for higher education; and whether research led by academic institutions is trusted.
Indeed, it’s becoming clearer that some voters think higher education institutions are actually bad for the country. “As much good as I think they do, I think they do as much harm,” Burke said. “The one thing that they do do well is they … make the kids think. Unfortunately, that thinking is guided to a specific point, and not just open ended.”
Holly Fuong and Duncan Gans contributed research.