Republicans Are Right, College Matters

This week, it’s my pleasure to post a thoughtful essay by Susan Engel, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Williams College. Engel responds to a surprising trend in the United States: a majority of surveyed Republicans now believe that higher education operates against our national interest. In a brief accompanying comment, I attempt to capture the frame of mind which might lead to this unfortunate conviction.


Republicans Are Right, College Matters

Susan Engel, with commentary by Howard Gardner

I never thought I’d be saying this in the year that Donald Trump was elected President, but the Republicans are right. College does have a powerful impact on the lives of individuals and on society at large.

In July, the Pew Research Center found that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Republicans who think a college education is bad for individuals, and, more broadly, for society. “Two years ago 54 percent of Republicans said colleges had a positive impact on the country’s direction, with 37 percent rating higher education negatively. That ratio shifted to 43 percent positive and 45 percent negative last year.” The Republicans are dead wrong that college is bad for people, but they are on to something when they focus on its broad and profound impact.

For years now, economists and psychologists have been gathering data to examine the effect college has on people’s lives once they graduate. Some of the comparisons yield straightforward results. For instance, the data are crystal clear—people who go to college are far more likely to get and keep a steady job, to own their own home, and to get and stay married. In all those observable, concrete ways, college is a benefit, and that is true no matter what a person’s cultural, racial, or economic background. Going to college makes a positive difference. Needless to say, that result varies as a function of tuition. The economic benefits may be diminished if it takes someone 25 years to pay off student loans, or if paying off the loan forces people into life choices that make them miserable. Given the rock solid benefits of college, it’s not unreasonable to think that the solution to outsized tuitions costs is not to encourage young people to skip more education, but rather, to find ways to make it affordable for all. But going to college changes more than a person’s future earnings.

The Republicans are on to something when they rant and rail about the even more profound impact college has on people’s lives and on society at large. Because the economic benefits of college are only one way in which college affects students, and not even necessarily the most important one. We now have data showing that a college education (not to be confused with the piece of paper that shows you got a degree) improves far more than people’s bank accounts. Studies show that a four year degree improves people’s ability to solve problems, analyze information, understand two sides of an argument, reason about moral issues, and communicate effectively—in short, going to college is the best way to become a sharp and careful thinker. However, the impacts extend beyond the strictly academic. Students who go to college are also less dogmatic, less prone to authoritarianism, more likely to exhibit autonomy in every day life, and more inclined to care about and help other people and their communities. It turns out that college, not just a college degree, is very good for everyone. A look at international data only drives this point home: wherever people have more access to more education, life for everyone gets better.

That is not to say that we fully understand what it is about the college experience that is so formative. Research is now underway, in several labs, trying to tease apart the aspects of college that might be most influential: the experience of spending time with people who are different from you, close contact with a professor, intensive time in an environment in which knowledge and reasoned argument are valued, extra-curricular activities like sports and choir, or a prolonged adolescence. Some researchers collecting data see signs that the benefits are greatest for those whose pre-college lives are least like the college they attend—this emerging finding suggests that the push some colleges are making to recruit and retain first generation students is vital.

College doesn’t only lead to greater earning power. It leads to a more thoughtful, informed and civically engaged life for the individual, and thus by extension, influences society at large. If anything, what we’ve learned so far is that the benefits of college are so profound we need to know more about why and how. For instance, colleges (and those individuals and philanthropic institutions that fund them) might consider whether small classes are important, whether to allot more or less time for extracurriculars, and whether student access to professors is key. Such information would also inform decisions about making college accessible to all. Does living on a campus matter? Is four years that much more powerful than three years? Is there something distinctive about a liberal arts approach? What kinds of experiences within college exert the most important influences?

It’s a form of doublespeak to claim that colleges are bad for us because on a few campuses a few speakers were un-invited or booed out of town. Such turbulence reflects turbulent times, not some particularly pernicious effect of the higher education community. It’s equally ridiculous to say that colleges are a hotbed of censorship. Each of the colleges recently embroiled in controversy over cancelled speakers have devoted considerable time and effort to examining, explaining, and reconsidering their decisions. It’s true that many of us who work in colleges have been concerned, in recent years, that students and faculty are timid about saying what they think, for fear of seeming racist, causing outrage, or being accused of sexual harassment, for instance. I don’t know of one single college that hasn’t been trying to figure out how to make discussions (between students, between faculty, and between both) as bracing and open as possible, while protecting the dignity and security of everyone in the community.

It’s not that these difficulties are more intense on college campuses. To the contrary, it’s that members of college communities are more intensely engaged in trying to figure out how to ensure free speech and the open exchange of ideas, as well as moral and personal accountability. More time and energy is given to these concerns at colleges than it is in any other sector of our society. Gathering opinions, reflecting on past actions, and staying in the discussion—now those are the rewards of college, and they benefit us all.

Comment from Howard Gardner

As a friend and colleague of Susan Engel’s, and one who, like Susan, works at a selective institution, it’s not surprising that I agree with her sentiments. College was a formative influence for me and for many of my friends and relatives. I’m now engaged in a large national study of non-vocational higher education in the United States; it would be tragic if this distinctive American creation were to become a victim of political polarization in this country.

But like many of our colleagues, I’ve been trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of those who have become antipathetic to higher education, U. S. style. I’ve read many articles and columns, as well as the best-selling books Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance’s and Strangers in their Own Land by Arlie HochschildAnd building on this “education about citizens in the fly-over states,” the majority of whom are supporters of Donald Trump, I’m going to try to put forth the perspective of one of those who has a negative view of American higher education—though, since I am not a ventriloquist, I’ll use my words, not his.

Of course I would like my kids to get a good education—even better if it does not cost me and my family a lot of money! But the way I see it, we are educating the wrong kids and doing it in a way that is destructive to our society.

Let me tell you a bit about myself. My family are good people. For generations. we have worked hard; we have served in the military; we have prayed and gone faithfully to church; we have loved this country—or anyway what remains of it.

But in recent decades, all of this has fallen apart. We have trouble getting jobs and keeping them; when we have served in the military, even sustained serious injury, people on the home front have not supported us—indeed they have often mocked us. And more and more people, especially young people, don’t pray, don’t go to church, and get their kicks from demeaning the United States.

I don’t know for sure how much of this is due to colleges. But I see colleges rejecting the children of friends and family, and accepting students of color and foreign students—through so-called affirmative action. While young people I know are flipping burgers at McDonald’s or, worse, getting involved with drugs, these privileged kids are living in the lap of luxury, in fancy buildings, complete with climbing walls, lavish gyms, huge screen televisions, and food menus that cater to every palate except good old American food.

Also, I have seen what happens to the children of friends, or of my family, who occasionally are admitted to a so-called “select college.” When they graduate from high school, they are good kids. But as they come home over the next few years, you can reliably predict certain changes. They are less tied to family and friends in our community; they are less likely to go to church (some of them have even become atheists!); they use big words and throw around concepts and terms that I don’t understand, and are far less patriotic—few of them ever join the armed forces. And while these young people spoke at one time about returning home, and serving the community that nurtured them as doctors or lawyers or ministers, instead they go to New York (Wall Street), Los Angeles (TV and movies), or Silicon Valley (Google, Facebook), make heaps of money, and associate chiefly with those who went to the same college and belonged to the same clubs.

So would I blow up our colleges and universities? No, I am not that stupid. But I’d feel a lot better about them if they admitted the young people from our community; if the students engaged in service, especially the military, rather than acting like spoiled brats; and if they helped to make America like it was in the olden days—to borrow a phrase from President Trump, if they “helped to make America great again.”

Howard again:

I hope I captured the sentiments of my fictional spokesperson, without caricature. Whether or not I succeeded, the question remains: What to do? I hope it’s not patronizing to say that those of us who have reaped the benefits of higher education need to make extra efforts to understand its critics; to acknowledge and appreciate what Arlie Hochschild calls their “deep stories”; and to begin by engaging those individuals on their terms. In the end, I would hope that both advocates and critics of higher education would realize that neither has all the answers. Perhaps we can form questions and define issues in a way that reveals common ground—to use the metaphor of the day—so that education once again becomes a public, and not just a private good.

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2 Comments on “Republicans Are Right, College Matters”

  1. Minimalist MD August 9, 2017 at 4:47 am #

    It’s easy to imagine the caricature of the Trump supporter who rants against colleges as bastions of liberal indoctrination and against college students as intolerant entitled brats. To characterize Republicans as militaristic, nationalistic haters of higher education is a lazy generalization. We’d do better to put political rhetoric aside and really listen to what higher education critics are saying (as you say in your last paragraph.)
    I am a graduate of higher education from a so-called “elite” institution and not a Republican, but I think there are legitimate concerns regarding colleges in America. First, the price of college education is outrageous. The burden of student loans is crippling. And as tuition rises from a cost of a Honda to a Mercedes eventually to a Ferrari, one has to ask — when does it stop being “worth it?” Should students pay $250k to eventually get a job as a low level customer service rep, or can that $250k be invested better elsewhere? Keep in mind that not all colleges are as elite as Harvard and Williams.
    Second, there’s a lot of cynicism from the entire political spectrum about the college admission process. Many feel it should be a process to sort out the “deserving” but instead only benefits a few. There’s heated debate on whether to consider race, socioeconomic background, athletics, legacies. The cynicism has created expensive coaching services that promise anxious parents to package the perfect applicant out of their darling child. Pretty much everyone is going to find the process unfair.
    The college admission process used to be about selecting students who are able to handle the rigors of college academics. With more and more qualified applicants for few spots, colleges have to become arbitrarily selective. The problem is that colleges have styled themselves as commodities to be won rather than institutions that offer education. Parents and kids are in a death-race to “win” that Harvard degree rather than the education.
    Additionally, there’s the question of the education itself. Yes, we all know that college graduates earn more. And as Professor Engle says, that education (not just degree) seems to affect cognitive skills. But how much of that is selection bias?
    There’s also a great deal of skepticism from the general public regarding grade inflation. “Everybody getting A’s” seems to reflect the old “Participation Trophy” trope.
    It’s not just the uneducated public/Republicans who question the value of college. Employers like Google also have stopped requiring college degrees.
    Of course, there’s the media depictions of liberalized college students shouting down professors and speakers (Erika Christakis at Yale, Bret Weinstein at Evergreen, Charles Murray, the list goes on and on). You don’t have to be a Trump supporting redneck to shake your head and wonder if students are at college to learn from professors or to teach them.
    So I don’t think it’s wise to dismiss critics of higher education as uneducated Trump supporters.
    Dr. Gardner, I know you are a big deal, so thank you for taking the time to read my rant!

  2. James Engell August 30, 2017 at 5:13 pm #

    This post does chime with my thoughts. I do worry, though, that colleges and universities have not only a slant in their faculty toward liberal and progressive political views, but a very decided tilt. And institutional politics such as affirmative action (now in its fourth decade, or is it fifth?) seem to have no end in sight. Add to that a kind of enforced or expected political correctness and a resistance to hiring faculty with conservative political views (I have personally witnessed this prejudice here at Harvard and it surprised me, but there it is) and you end up with this: a sense among many Americans (a) that colleges and universities are not representative of the nation as a whole in terms of values, and for some people not even close; (b) that the gap between college-educated citizens and those without such an education has been widening in socio-economic terms for 30-40 years (a fact); and (c) that since many colleges and universities appear to have an implicit and at times even explicit tilt toward liberal political views, then while there are solid benefits to attending college that outweigh the costs, it remains true that not everyone will go to college, and so for those who don’t, they are in a losing battle, they are being beat down by those who do attend college, both in terms of earnings and in terms of political sway. The answer—since Bill Clinton’s promise of “college for all” was a pipe dream and a bad idea to boot—is anger and resentment.

    Of course, none of this thinks through the effects of technology, the premium placed in a service and information economy on certain skills and powers of judgment, etc. But it’s a natural reaction, and we shall see more of it. In short, the challenge to those with college (and higher) degrees is to stop the ever widening gap between those with college degrees and those without. Can that be done? I think so, though it would take some national policies that some liberals and quite a few conservatives (especially the big money ones who control so much that goes on in conservative circles) would not particularly like.

    We’re producing a country, it seems to me, with an ever widening gap between those with college and those without, not just in earning but in health, crime, smoking, divorce, opioid addiction, longevity, etc. College therefore is seen, from a certain perspective, as part of the problem, not part of the solution. It’s up to government and the education profession to address this, but I fear we’re not doing a very good job. I gave a talk about this at AAAS in early 2012 with some ideas for amelioration.

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