Photo: City of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

What a deep mistrust of higher ed looks like


A Story of Disdain

Over the past generation, a chasm has opened up between Democrats and Republicans based on college — and higher education has been turned into a partisan issue.

An entire political party, it seems, has lost faith in their public colleges. To get a palpable sense of the distrust — and to see how it can manifest in a community — read this story from Idaho by Emma Pettit, a former colleague of ours at The Chronicle.

“In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, as in places across America, disdain for higher education is thriving,” part of her headline reads. Once you dive in, that almost feels like an understatement.

Emma writes about the deepening tensions between North Idaho College and its board and how those reflect a county turning against its community college. You should read the whole story, but here are a couple of things that struck us — and helped us get a better view of how all of the distrust that shows up in national polls takes hold in a particular place:

— How resentment toward higher ed as a whole can set the stage for, and then magnify, skepticism of the college just down the road.

As Emma noted, how that dynamic is working in Coeur d’Alene is somewhat unusual: “Even harsh critics of the sector, research has shown, tend to feel positive about their local campuses.”

But in their criticism, trustees, state lawmakers, and citizens were quick to see their broader cultural concerns about higher education in the things they didn’t like about North Idaho College.

One trustee, who won a seat on the board last fall, told voters he was running because higher education has slipped into “ever more radical-left progressive ideology,” Emma reported. At North Idaho, he saw “blind submission” in students’ mask wearing in open spaces and advocated for removing “politically charged advocacy” for Black Lives Matter on the campus, among other “‘social justice’ indoctrination efforts.”

— How quickly an us-versus-them mentality can solidify, strengthening feelings of alienation.

In the county, one trustee told Emma, it was never unusual to hear comments like, “Put the ‘community’ back in community colleges.” But that sentiment, he said, has become “much more prominent.”

Political Shifts

The story of North Idaho College and Kootenai County, where it’s located, reminds us of the trends we saw in last year’s presidential election — and what they revealed about just how much the college degree has become a dividing line in American politics.

Across the country, and in Idaho, too, most counties like Kootenai where the proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree is below the national average have become more Republican since 2000.

The opposite is true in counties with higher educational attainment, which have shifted toward the Democrats. In Idaho, that includes Latah County, home to the University of Idaho. In most states, counties with flagship universities were blue bubbles — setting those campuses up for some of the most friction with Republicans in their state.

Here’s how voting shifted in Idaho counties between the presidential elections of 2000 and of 2020.

Part of Emma’s story recounts a town hall hosted by Republicans in Idaho last fall. There, Steve Vick, a Republican state lawmaker, talked about trends like this and how political polls showed that college graduates tend to vote more liberal.

He had a theory as to why: “As a college graduate, I’ll say this: It’s not ’cause they’re smarter. It’s just ’cause they spent more years being indoctrinated.”

— Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

Sign up to get our weekly email

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In Santa Cruz, Nick Ibarra wrote about efforts to change the name of Cabrillo College, the local community college. Critics now deride the name, saying Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the 16th-century explorer, massacred and enslaved indigenous people.

In his first issue of The Job, our new newsletter about connections between college and the workforce, Paul Fain looked at how the pandemic is shifting the way Baltimore talks to high schoolers about their future.

In latitude(s), Karin Fischer examined challenges for women in leadership roles in international education.

In Cleveland, Amy Morona reported on how Northeast Ohio colleges are hoping for a return to “normal” in the fall.

“They’ve learned not to make guarantees to people, because they now know what it means to have to respond to unexpected changes beyond their control,” one consultant told her.

Spotlight

‘When normal life stopped’: College essays reflect a turbulent year
This year’s admissions essays became a platform for high school seniors to reflect on the pandemic, race, and loss. (www.nytimes.com)

Higher education officials urge Legislature to invest in colleges after pandemic takes toll
As the Texas Legislature grapples with a struggling pandemic economy and the impact of an unprecedented winter storm, higher education advocates are vying for lawmakers’ attention. (www.texastribune.org)

UC Merced to guarantee freshman admission to eligible local students, a first for the system
University officials are aiming to motivate more students in the San Joaquin Valley — which lags behind other California regions in high school graduation rates — to pursue college. Only 30% of Merced Union High School District students complete the college preparatory coursework required for UC admission. (www.latimes.com)

Keep in Touch

Got a story tip or a question? Please send it along.

Run a newsroom and want to improve your coverage of higher ed? Let’s talk.

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

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

You May Also Like

A system of favoritism

Year after year of insider appointments to Mississippi’s higher-ed governing board, Molly Minta writes, “not only raise ethical questions but are indicative of a system of favoritism that excludes the historically Black colleges and universities.”

Help us fill critical gaps

There are gaps not just in where higher ed is being covered but also in what is being covered. So we’re excited to announce that this summer we’ll be hiring three national reporters to cover critical topics that are under-scrutinized.