One hazard of reporting on higher ed for decades is that you end up seeing every big news story through that lens. This week, of course, there was only one story. And while poring over county-by-county election results late at night, I could see that in our deeply divided nation, our college towns are continuing their electoral shift to the Democrats.

Four years ago, Sara and I worked with a couple of Chronicle interns to look at just what voting patterns said about the political bubbles wrapped around big universities. Little surprise, perhaps, but Hillary Clinton did very, very well in counties that are home to public flagship universities.

This time around watching the returns that divide has only grown more extreme. And we wondered how it had changed over the last two decades — a time during which, as Sara explained last week, the Democratic electorate has become much more college-educated.

So we looked at the results in every presidential election since 2000 in the 49 counties that are home to a public flagship university. (Alaska doesn’t report county-based votes so we left that one off. Also, in the few states that have multiple “flagships,” we picked just one.)

Some highlights:

  • This year, Biden won 41 of those 49 counties, one more than Clinton managed.
  • Four years ago, Clinton beat Trump, on average, by 18 percentage points in counties with a public flagship. Preliminary numbers show Biden widening that victory, with an average of a 23-point margin in those same counties.
  • In total, 44 of the 49 counties shifted further in the Democrats’ direction compared to 2016.

21st Century Shifts

Many of these counties, of course, have long been the liberal outposts in their states. But back in 2000 these flagship counties — though still favoring Democrats overall — were much closer to the national averages. Al Gore, while winning the national popular vote by half a point, had an average of a 5-point victory in flagship counties. (For example, Gore lost Missoula County, Montana by 9 and just squeaked out a win in Boone County, Missouri.)

In fact, that year the GOP won 20 of the counties that are home to flagships.

Since that election, almost every flagship county has moved strongly in the Democratic direction. Twenty-two of them have shifted by more than 20 points.

It’s happening in almost every type of county.

Take deep-red Wyoming. In Albany County — home of the University of Wyoming — George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 19 points. This week, meanwhile, Biden eked out a 3-point win there, a 22-point swing since 2000.

Places we think of as liberal bastions have become more so. Dane County, the home of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has long been a stronghold for Democrats. Gore won it by 29 points, Clinton by 47, and now Biden by 53 points.

Sometimes these shifts mirror what’s happened in the surrounding state. Virginia has been transformed politically in the last 20 years. Yet while the state has gone from -8 for Democrats to +10, the shifts in Albemarle County (the University of Virginia) have been even more extreme: from -6 for Democrats to +34 this week.

And in other places, the flagship county has still voted more Democratic while the state is going in the other direction. Ohio, for example, has trended more Republican, shifting from a 3.5-margin for Bush back in 2000 to a 8-point win for Trump this year. Meanwhile, Franklin County, home to Ohio State has gone from nearly tied (Gore carried the county by 1 point) to a 31-point edge for the Democrats.

We’ll leave conversations for another day about whether this extreme political divide affects how Americans perceive higher education. But as you’re perusing all those county-level maps of election results, know that many of those blue dots in the sea of rural red are home to a university.

— Scott Smallwood

+ Want to explore more of that data? We’ve posted a table here.

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Forecasting in a New Normal

iStock/Andrey Bukreev

On the eve of the election, Jeff Selingo asked the founder of an enrollment management business this question:

Are there any similarities between forecasting an election in a pandemic with so much early voting and forecasting the incoming class of a college next fall?

In Next this week, Jeff writes about several things that struck him about the conversation that followed with Brian Zucker, the founder of Human Capital Research, about how colleges are dealing with the uncertainty of this year:

  • With so much volatility, colleges that can will lean into their pool of full-pay students this year, even if those students bring with them a slightly lower academic profile.
  • With so many high school seniors lacking a test score this year, Zucker told Jeff he has been busy working with colleges to build new “academic ratings” for awarding merit aid. The bottom line, Jeff wrote: Expect selective colleges to favor students from familiar high schools — where enrollment rates have been reliable — even more than usual. It could help colleges hedge their bets.
  • This year, many colleges will be looking for as many signs of a student’s “demonstrated interest” in actually enrolling as they can find in this new normal. Did the student take a virtual tour? Did she show up for a Zoom meet-up with an admissions counselor? Did he open an email? That could increase the students’ chances for admission and merit aid.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

• In latitude(s) this week, Karin Fischer talked with international students about how the policy debates of the Trump era motivated them to become more active in U.S. politics.

Beginning in its first days with the travel ban, actions by the Trump administration have been enormously consequential for students from overseas, Karin wrote. Policy changes have made it more difficult to get student visas and have increased scrutiny of those who hold them. Even as the clock ticked down to the election, the government proposed limiting the amount of time international students can stay in America.

“Even if I don’t have the power to vote,” a student from Malaysia told Karin, “I still have a voice.”

For the first time in decades, Democrats have become the majority on the University of Colorado Board of Regents. Colorado is one of a handful of states that asks voters to elect members of college governing boards.

The shift has the potential to put Mark Kennedy, the university’s president, on notice, Jason Gonzales wrote this week for Chalkbeat, our partner in Denver. Kennedy, whose selection was controversial, was brought in by Republicans last year on a party-line vote.

One of the newly elected regents, Ilana Spiegel, told Jason that, more than party control, what’s important to her is that this year’s election creates a majority on the board of regents — both Democrats and Republicans — who come from a background in education.

• The pandemic has laid bare challenges that tuition-dependent private colleges already were facing, Amy Morona reported this week for our partner newsroom Crain’s Cleveland Business.

In northeast Ohio, some colleges are cutting salaries and phasing out programs. Others are doubling down on marketing or seeking a niche to expand.

The days of colleges having a restaurant-style menu of program options probably doesn’t make sense, the president of Ashland University told Amy.

“I don’t know how many schools can afford to have a four-year German language program long-term.”

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