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The Education of Our Electorate


It Wasn’t Always This Way

Four years ago, in the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning election win, we spent a lot of time thinking about the intersection of college and America’s partisan divides — divides that suddenly were feeling starker than ever.

The exit polls showed that Trump took two-thirds of the non-college-educated white vote and that he beat Hillary Clinton by an eight-point margin among all voters without a college degree. College graduates, meanwhile, favored Clinton by a nine-point margin.

It was by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates, the Pew Research Center reported then, in more than three decades.

Our colleague at The Chronicle, Jack Stripling, wrote that week about how the outcome amounted to “a humbling of higher ed.”

“The Republican nominee,” Jack wrote in 2016, “rode a rising wave of resentment toward the elitism and insularity that higher education is often thought to represent.”

Now, here in 2020, those divides have become chasms. And that resentment seems only to have deepened.

It’s hard to remember, but it wasn’t always this way.

Back in 1996, when Bill Clinton was running for re-election, about half of Democratic voters had never been to college, according to the Pew Research Center. Now, barely more than one-quarter haven’t.

And that year it was Republicans, not Democrats, who were more likely to have a college degree. In 1996, 27 percent of Republican voters had a college degree, compared with 22 percent of Democratic voters.

The reverse is true now: 41 percent of voters who identify with the Democratic party or lean toward it have a college degree compared with 30 percent of voters who identify with the Republican party or lean toward it.

Over the past 25 years, the education landscape has changed. In 1996, Pew points out, only about one-quarter of all voters had a four-year college degree compared with well over one-third now. But it’s really only been the educational profile of the Democratic voter that’s shifted over that same period; the share of Republican voters with a college degree has remained largely unchanged.

The Wrong Direction

Meanwhile, new survey data out this week also serves as a reminder of just how partisan an issue higher education has become. It doesn’t contain good news for colleges about the public’s perception either.

The majority of Americans surveyed this month for a Pew Research Center study said the U.S. higher education system is going in the wrong direction.

That negative view was particularly strong among Republicans: two-thirds said higher ed is going in the wrong direction. About half of Democrats did.

So, that wave of resentment toward elitism and insularity that we talked about four years ago? It remains a force for higher ed to reckon with, regardless of Tuesday’s outcome.

— Sara Hebel

+ More on colleges and politics:Read Amy Morona, our new Cleveland reporter, on how the pandemic has upended voter engagement strategies for college students in the swing state of Ohio. In recent national polling, Amy reported, 63 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they’ll “definitely be voting” in the presidential election, up from 47 percent who said the same in 2016.

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Our New Santa Cruz Reporter

Nick Ibarra

We’re excited to welcome Nick Ibarra, who will be covering higher ed in Santa Cruz, Calif., with our newsroom partner Lookout Santa Cruz, which is launching next month.

Nick grew up in Santa Cruz County and most recently worked as a reporter for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, where he covered government and education. He attended the local community college, Cabrillo College — where he got his first taste of journalism — and graduated from San Jose State University.

“Santa Cruz County is where I’ve spent most of my life and career,“ Nick says, “so there’s a personal layer to this beat in this place.”

His dad, he says, was a high-school civics teacher who fell in love with the Fourth Estate after immigrating from Mexico as a child. (That, and his dad’s frequent screenings of “All the President’s Men,” Nick says, probably had something to do with why he was drawn to journalism.)

There’s “a certain opacity” within some campus administrations, Nick says, that he first ran into as a journalism student and that still attracts him to the beat. He’s especially interested in covering equity and access issues around colleges’ roles as gatekeepers and how the presence of campuses impacts smaller host cities like Santa Cruz.

Tough Promises to Keep

Access Denied: Above is a screenshot of what now greets web visitors looking for information about the “Connecticut Commitment” — the University of Connecticut’s promise to be tuition free for low-income students.

Until recently that same page explained how UConn was committed to making a “top-notch education accessible and affordable” for state residents. It pledged to cover tuition for students from families earning less than $50,000 a year.

Now, the Connecticut Commitment is the latest victim of pandemic-related cost cutting in higher education, the Connecticut Mirror reports.

The program is serving just 260 students but was planned to grow to as many as 6,000 and cost eventually $5 million — some of which the university was hoping to support through donations. So, although the current cost is modest — just $700,000 — officials who are still facing a $28-million budget shortfall decided they had to “pause” the program rather than make promises they couldn’t keep. The current 260 students will still be covered, though.

Across Our Network

• In Cleveland, Amy Morona told the local story of a trend we’ve seen across the nation: sharply declining community college enrollments. At one northeast Ohio college, Cuyahoga Community College, Black student enrollment is down a whopping 24 percent, she reported.

To help meet the new challenges students are facing, an administrator at Lorain County Community College told Amy they made two promises: No student would go without technology, and no student would go hungry.

Use of the college’s food pantry was up 40 percent, the official said. And they increased technology support.

“It wasn’t just ‘I don’t have a laptop, I don’t have WiFi.’ It was, ‘I’m using WiFi at McDonald’s and I can’t go in there anymore. I’m using WiFi at the college and you’re not going to be open.’ “

• In Colorado, Jason Gonzales explored the pandemic’s threat to adjunct faculty, who make up 40 percent of colleges’ instructional staff. Cuts to part-time positions, he wrote, could mean fewer course offerings and larger class sizes. More than 360,000 college workers have lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Spotlight

Death of a President
A visionary took charge of a college in a moment of crisis. Then he caught Covid-19. (www.chronicle.com)

‘A Big Concern’: After We Couldn’t Find Students or Faculty at a College, Agency Scrambled To Crack Down
After a USA TODAY investigation, the accreditor of a small, for-profit college sent a visitor to a South Dakota business park listed as the address for Reagan National University. No one was there. Everyone had gotten sick, the college’s dean said. (www.usatoday.com)

Racial Disparities in Higher Education Funding Could Widen during Economic Downturn
Since the last recession, the U.S. has made little progress on the funding gap for colleges that serve disproportionate shares of students of color. (insidehighered.com)

Keep in Touch

Interested in covering higher education? Sign up for our job alerts, add yourself to our talent pool, and see our latest openings with partner newsrooms on our Jobs page. Our partners are currently hiring in El Paso and Mississippi.

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