Jefferson County, Ohio (left), and Jefferson County, Colorado (right)

A Tale of Two Jefferson Counties

As we look more deeply into election data, we continue to be struck by this: how much, in just a single generation, the college degree has become the fault line in American politics.

  • Just 20 years ago, Al Gore and George W. Bush split the 100 most-educated counties in the nation. This year, Joe Biden won 83 of them.
  • Of the 1,000 least-educated counties — those where fewer than 16 percent of adults have a college degree — Donald Trump won nine out of 10 of them.

To get a closer look at what’s happening, we zeroed in on two counties with the same name: two Jefferson Counties that have moved in opposite directions since 2000.

The Jefferson County of Ohio voted for Gore, John Kerry, and then Barack Obama (once). Since then, it’s gone for the Republicans. There’s been a 45-point swing toward the Republican party in presidential elections here since 2000.

In the county, a former steel stronghold along the Ohio River, just over 15 percent of residents 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree, well below the national average of about 31 percent.

Contrast that with the Jefferson County of Colorado, which voted solidly for Bush in both 2000 and 2004. In 2008, its voters went for Obama and have voted for the Democrat in presidential elections ever since. Here, there’s been a 26-point swing toward the Democratic party in presidential elections over the past two decades.

This Jefferson County sits on the western edge of the Denver metro area, touting itself as the “Gateway to the Rocky Mountains,” and is home to companies like Coors Brewing and Lockheed Martin. Here, 44 percent of residents hold a bachelor’s degree, well above the national average.

The Suburban Mindset

Talk to people who live in these counties and higher education doesn’t always leap to the forefront of the conversation about what’s changing. But you can quickly hear how it plays into all kinds of issues that shape the identity and politics of a place — what jobs are there to do, how much money can people earn, which generations are moving in and which ones are moving out.

In Colorado, the rhetoric of the Republican party is now simply out of step with the suburban mindset, said State Rep. Colin Larson, a Republican who grew up in Jefferson County and now represents it.

His party’s stark, socially conservative positioning doesn’t play well here, he says, especially with his constituents who are 45 and younger. More late Gen Xers and Millennials are now at stages in their lives where they’ve saved up enough money and are moving to the suburbs, says Larson, who is 33.

There’s a real generational shift on issues like gay rights and climate change. When he knocks on doors, he says, he regularly hears about those policies. People tell him they don’t plan to consider voting for a party that seems stuck in the past.

Here’s how a college education fits in, says Larson, who graduated from Colorado College and started an independent coffee shop before running for office:

People who are college-educated “have more of a tendency to be movable in politics,” he says, “because they get outside of their communities more.”

Over just two decades, Jefferson County has gone from being the beating heart of Colorado’s Republican party to being a nationally watched bellwether to being pretty reliably Democratic, says Eric Sondermann, a columnist for ColoradoPolitics.

Larson says he’s watched a “meteoric implosion” of his party in Jefferson County. Of the county’s seven representatives in the Colorado House, he’s now the only Republican.

Diminishing Industries

In Ohio, Jefferson County was once dominated by industries like steel mills, paper mills, glass factories, and potteries. The prevalence of unions here helped drive the county’s past affiliation with Democrats, says Charles Green, a volunteer historian and genealogist at the Jefferson County Historical Association.

Now, those industries are gone.

When young people get out of high school, Green says, there are few jobs for them here if they don’t go to college. And if they do go to college, they don’t come back. They move to the bigger cities, places like Columbus and Cleveland.

There are a couple of major industries left — including Titanium Metals, up north in Toronto, and Barium & Chemicals, in Steubenville. Beyond that, he says, there are some satellite businesses and machine shops but nothing big like there used to be.

Green, who is 83, has lived in Jefferson County his whole life. He served in the U.S. Marines. He worked in quality control for many years at Titanium Metals, and he’s been volunteering with the historical association since 1997. Over the years he took some college courses — at Wittenberg University and at what used to be known as Jefferson County Technical Institute. And he studied metallurgy through the American Society of Metals. But he never completed a college degree.

He doesn’t always vote with the same party, he says. Both this year and four years ago, though, he went with Trump.

When I asked Green about Jefferson County politics, he first touted local history. The 19-room county museum where he gives tours showcases the famous people born here. There’s Dean Martin, there’s Dorothy Sloop (the song “Hang on Sloopy” is said to be about her). And then there’s one local legend, Green told me, everyone here supports: Edwin McMasters Stanton, the war secretary under Abraham Lincoln.

As it happens, Stanton spent the first decades of his political life as a Democrat — before switching to become a Republican.

Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

+ Explore our visualization of educational attainment and voting patterns, from 2000 to 2020.

Sign up to get our weekly email

Could Joe Biden Just Cancel Your Student Debt?

With Joe Biden’s election but with Senate control still undecided, attention has turned to what the new president could do without Congress. One idea that seems just too good to be true to so many people: he could simply cancel $50,000 in debt for each borrower.

A quick thread from Matt Chingos at Urban Institute summarizing the pros and cons of this idea:

Last year, this American Prospect piece outlined the theory behind how the president could just cancel the debt. It’s embedded in a power the government was given back in 1958 called “compromise and settlement.” Think of it as a kind of prosecutorial discretion.

More theory: Luke Herrine, a Ph.D. student at Yale Law School, gets credit for trying to jump start some of this policy debate with a paper titled: “The Law and Political Economy of a Student Debt Jubilee.”

Juice the economy?: Urban Institute on how canceling debt is a form of economic stimulus in the midst of the pandemic.

So how likely is all of this? Not sure, but it’s definitely getting attention. Perhaps the most interesting point Chingos made: “I wonder if executive action to forgive a lot of student debt could be used as a bargaining chip to push Congress to consider more equitable and efficient alternatives.”

— Scott Smallwood

Double Your Impact

Thank you for your support of Open Campus. With your help, we’ve been able to grow our local network to seven partnerships in six states.

That means a state like Mississippi will now have a reporter dedicated to higher education, and a border region like El Paso will gain its first reporter covering colleges in 30 years.

Local news matters now more than ever, and we could use your help. We’re working to connect more people in more communities to better coverage of their colleges.

As the divides in our society grow starker, we believe more thoughtful coverage can help. It can foster understanding, decrease public cynicism, and hold higher ed to its public mission.

Between now and December 31, your gift to Open Campus will be doubled, thanks to NewsMatch. Here’s where you can give.

Thanks again. We’re grateful.

Spotlight

Kamala Harris, BLM Protests Put a New Spotlight on HBCUs. Many Now Hope for a Financial Reckoning (Washington Post)
The presidential campaign has raised HBCUs’ profile, while calls for racial justice following nationwide protests have delivered record donations. But will it last? And is it enough to address generations of disenfranchisement at the hands and states and the federal government?

Harvard Doesn’t Discriminate Against Asian American Applicants, U.S. Appeals Court Rules (The Chronicle)
The ruling was a defeat for Students for Fair Admissions, which sued Harvard in 2014.

Enrollment Declines Continue, National Student Clearinghouse Finds (Inside Higher Ed)
Undergraduate enrollment is still down across higher education, according to the latest National Student Clearinghouse report. Black and Hispanic enrollment in community colleges is still down more than white and Asian enrollment.

Pandemic Campus Diaries: A Podcast Series
Fall 2020 has been the first full college term of the COVID-19 pandemic, and no one knew quite what to expect. (www.edsurge.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.

Apply now to work with us! Our partners are currently hiring in El Paso and Mississippi. If you’re interested, or know someone we should reach out to, send us a note.

Please share. Forward this newsletter to colleagues, family, and friends who might be interested. They can sign up for their own copy here.

Thanks for reading!

Our Local Network Locations: California | Cleveland | Colorado | El Paso | Mississippi | Pittsburgh | Santa Cruz

You May Also Like