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Conservatives Distrust Higher Ed—But Still Need Degrees

The Bulwark

March 19, 2024

Ideological opposition to “woke” colleges and universities could harm conservatives and rural communities.

American’s faith in our colleges and universities has seen a marked decline in recent years, with the percentage of adults who say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the institutions of higher education plunging from 57 percent to 36 percent between 2015 and 2023, according to Gallup. While the rising cost of a college degree is likely a major culprit behind this trend, another, more pernicious factor is at work—ideology. Confidence in higher ed has slipped among all party identifications, but among Republicans it fell right off a cliff: The percentage of Republicans who professed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher ed dropped a whopping 37 percentage points, nearly double the national average, and four times the dropoff for Democrats.

Many on the right now hold as self-evident truths that colleges and universities are run by and for liberal elites, congenitally biased against conservatives, or in some other way rotten to the core. Elite higher ed, with its fixation on opaque, constantly shifting theories of diversity that often cause new injustices and its all-too-evident toleration of antisemitism, seems bent on confirming these perceptions.

The problem with conservatives’ ideological opposition to four-year, degree-conferring institutions is that they end up punishing themselves and their kids. A bachelor’s degree continues to have great economic and noneconomic value—but how much? We attempt to answer this question in a report published by AEI’s Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility.

Degree holders can expect to earn an average of more than $1 million more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma. They also enjoy higher employment rates and are less likely to be laid off in a recession. While some recent research suggests that the gap in average wages and wealth between degree-holders and non-degree-holders is narrowing, the amount of narrowing is vigorously debated—and however fast it’s narrowing, it’s still there for now.

College degrees are associated with several noneconomic benefits, from improved health outcomes to greater civic engagementhigher rates of marriage, and higher levels of job satisfaction.

These factors contribute not just to personal advancement but also to more cohesive, economically vibrant, and resilient communities. Research has also consistently linked the presence of institutions of higher education with regional economic benefits, including economic growth and improvements in quality of life. In addition to teaching skills and spurring innovation, colleges and universities help generate “social capital”—that is, they contribute to the trust people have in others and the extent to which they enjoy social relationships that support their economic and noneconomic needs. In general, in terms of happiness and economic well-being—whether for individuals or for communities—the more social capital, the better.

Let’s stipulate the obvious: College is not for everyone. Getting a bachelor’s degree may look good at a statistical level, when we’re talking about the average American, but averages can be deceptive when applied to individuals; your mileage may vary. As the price of college has risen dramatically in the past few decades, the cost of starting but not finishing a degree has increased. In some cases, the worst outcome might be to accumulate the debt of some college without the rewards that come with the degree. This “propensity to complete” is perhaps the most important variable in making a decision about whether to attend college at all.

As we argue in our report, we need a more student-centered approach to post-secondary decision-making, one that accounts for population-level averages but focuses on individual preferences, abilities, and resources. Such an approach can help us keep out of a trap increasingly prevalent on the populist right: the conviction that no one should go to college.

This assertion can be especially damaging for rural and Republican-dominated areas of the country that stand to lose the most by abandoning higher education. Residents of these areas are already more likely to struggle with social and economic distress. Eschewing college could lead to a self-perpetuating, intergenerational cycle in which young people don’t go to college because they lack role models and the active encouragement of parents and friends who have degrees. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California and a native of rural Pennsylvania herself, interviewed parents across the country and found that rural dwellers were less likely than their urban counterparts to care whether their children attended college. Over time, this indifference can be a significant barrier to individual and community-level development.

Conversely, colleges and college degrees can have the most impact in these disadvantaged, non-metropolitan areas. Data show that students from low-income backgrounds often receive the biggest economic benefits from college attendance, depending on the type of institution they attend (elite private schools and high-quality public institutions). These gains should not be sacrificed lightly. And the debate about this important subject should not be conducted at the level of internet memes notable for ignoring and distorting the benefits of college.

Instead of encouraging their children to avoid higher education, conservatives should seek to reform higher education from within to make it more welcoming to rural and right-leaning students. They might start by asking colleges to place greater emphasis on race-neutral disadvantages associated with geography, socioeconomic status, and viewpoint as part of their “diversity and inclusion” initiatives. They might also push to have colleges offer more counseling resources and other services to help students make decisions about their courses of study, complete their degrees, and navigate the labor market. These changes will take time and require shifts in culture as well as policy. In the meantime, let’s not allow the all-too-evident problems in higher education obscure its historic contribution to rising living standards.