A recent Pew Research Center poll on American trust in institutions asked people if churches, banks, labor unions, the media, and colleges are having a positive or negative effect on our nation. The biggest news to come out of this year's poll (they do it every year) is a major shift in Republican responses to colleges and universities. According to their report, "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." This chart shows you just how steep the decline is:
Why have Americans--especially, but not only, Republicans--turned cold on college? Do they no longer value education? No, despite some of the over-the-top headlines, this probably isn't it. While the Pew poll doesn't ask each of the respondents to explain their answers, there are a couple good guesses as to what's going on.
When I reached out to my own personal network to ask about people's reactions, a neither-red-nor-blue Libertarian friend said "I don't think it's the education aspect, it's the coddling aspect that seems to be taking place that people have complained about the most within the right leaning circles I see." She directed me to two articles from November that illustrate the idea: "Coddling campus crybabies: Students take up toddler therapy after Trump win" and "Here's how universities are offering support to students after Trump's election." Just Google "college snowflake" and you'll understand that a lot of people worry about liberal pampering that may go on at universities.
Related to the coddling issue is the debate about free speech and openness to opposing viewpoints. People point to the incidents at Middlebury College and U.C. Berkeley as evidence that university communities are not open to the free speech of people who have opposing--in this case conservative and/or politically incorrect--viewpoints. For what it's worth, it's not just people like Milo Yiannopoulous who are worried. Here's what President Obama said in his 2016 graduation speech at Howard:
"So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There's been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that -- no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability."
So if universities are seen as places where people go not to listen and learn, but to shout and be right all the time, then it's understandable that people are concerned that universities might not have the effect we want--and need--in the nation.
Another big thing going on has to do not with colleges themselves but with college debt. The two cornerstones of the modern American Dream have been higher education and home ownership. The mortgage crisis and Great Recession beginning in 2008 made home ownership as a way to wealth and independence more complicated and worrisome, and many see college debt as the next "bubble" that may wreck our economy. In this case, it's not necessarily universities or education at all they're reacting against, it's the negative effect on our overall economy that may be a consequence of universities that they're most worried about.
While the shift in Republican attitudes over the past two years does show a very sudden change, there's also a tradition of conservative voices against real and imagined liberal indoctrination at universities. Colleges were a primary battleground in the Culture Wars of the 1980s and '90s. [Let thank sink in, young readers. As polarized, dysfunctional, and ugly as things seem now, when people talk about the "Culture Wars" they're usually referring to 20 years ago.] Similarly, during the Cold War many people were concerned about Socialists and Communists in the college system. Berkeley didn't just have major protests when Milo was going to be on campus earlier this year, but also in 1960, when HUAC held committee meetings in San Francisco and subpoenaed U.C. Berkeley professors. (Berkeley would go on to have many big protests throughout the '60s.)
So back to our original question. What does this have to do with you, the college-seeking high school student? If you go to college, are you participating in something that may be harmful to our nation? Should you be worried?
No. You're fine. The poll has to do with institutions, not individual choices. 85% of Republicans said the media and the press are having a negative effect on the country, but nobody's encouraging you to stop reading the news and learning about what's going on in the world. 54% of Democrats think that banks and financial institutions are having a negative effect on the country, but nobody thinks you should take out your savings and bury it in the back yard--or almost nobody. People are worried about big-picture movements. This doesn't really concern you as an individual.
Well, except maybe it does. To what extent are you about to go be a part of the problems when you get to college?
"Coddled" is a loaded term and just about always an exaggeration. But ask yourself this: are you hoping to go to a school where you don't have to hear much from people who aren't like you, in terms of politics or religion or lifestyle or culture? If so, you may be doing yourself and your nation a real disservice.
And are you planning on being politically active at college, for any of the possible sides or causes? If so, then your nation--especially Republicans--are worried that you'll help steer the country in a negative way. Here's a rule of thumb to help you think about campus political activity: Always ask lots of questions; often speak up for yourself and your beliefs; sometimes join protests or social actions; never join counter-protests. No matter your political cause, it would also be wise to re-read King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." In it he outlines four steps to social campaign, and the first three are often overlooked or forgotten: "1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; 2) negotiation; 3) self-purification; and 4) direct action."
Similarly, a haphazard approach to debt is not only self-destructive, but also a part of a bigger problem that might be economically destructive to all of us. Understand how much debt is reasonable for your situation, and do not take on more debt than that. Unfortunately, there's no easy equation or magic formula to know how much debt is reasonable. It's a case-by-case sort of thing, and there's always risk involved. Yes, STEM jobs tend to pay higher, but tech companies keep saying they want more liberal arts majors. Plus, the high-dollar jobs now may not be the high-dollar jobs when you finish college. And you're likely to switch majors anyway. But if you do your homework and have a realistic sense of how much college costs, how much money you're likely to make, and how you can pay it back, then you can come up with some sort of useful plan for debt.
So let's wrap this up. A lot of people--and a lot more than just a few years ago--think universities have a negative effect on the country. You should go to college anyway. But please don't be part of the problem.
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