Americans divided on higher education, but we can move to common ground
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A recent opinion survey conducted by the Pew Research Center raised in stark terms the question of how Americans value institutions of higher learning.

Respondents were asked whether colleges and universities have a positive or negative effect on the way things are going in the country. The results appear to reveal yet another example of the highly-polarized time in which we are living. But another aspect of the survey, which has received much less attention, illustrates a crucial place of common ground.

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Most attention has focused on two aspects of the results. First, responses among Republicans and Democrats differed dramatically. Whereas 72 percent of Democrats responded that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country, and only 19 percent that they had a negative effect, among Republicans, 58 percent saw colleges and universities as having a negative effect on the country and only 36 percent thought that they have a positive impact.

Second, the dramatic nature of this difference in response by political affiliation is a very recent phenomenon. Although the general trend — Democrats having a more favorable view of higher education institutions than Republicans — is of long-standing, the difference used to be much less.

More than half of the Republicans surveyed from 2010-2015 — and at one point as high as 58 percent — reported a positive view of the impact of colleges and universities on the country. The past two years have seen a significant drop-off in support among Republicans. Whereas Democratic support over the same period, 2010-17, has even slightly increased. Is there a place of common ground reflective of the  the earlier consensus and is there a way to reclaim it today?

I believe the common ground is found in a third aspect to the Pew study that has received somewhat less attention. The stark differences on the question of impact between Democrats and Republicans evaporate when the question is moved to the individual level.

When college graduates were asked how they viewed their own college education, 89 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats answered that it was either very useful or somewhat useful for workplace skills.,Further, 88 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats replied that it was either very useful or somewhat useful for providing job opportunities. Moreover, 93 percent of Republicans and 97 percent of Democrats held that it was either very useful or somewhat useful for their personal growth.

The global question elicits frustrations at an institutional level that are ameliorated or even disappear then at the individual level. An overall negative opinion of the impact of colleges and universities on the nation, at least among Republicans, changes greatly when the question turns to actual individual experience and the utility of college for both a productive life and a meaningful one.

It is not surprising that Republicans and Democrats alike reply positively when asked the individual question concerning their higher education experiences. College graduates are employed at significantly higher levels than those without college degrees.

A report from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute finds that 65 percent of all jobs in the economy by 2020 will require postsecondary education and college graduates can expect much greater earning capacity. The Census Bureau’s report “The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings,” finds that those with a college degree will earn nearly one million dollars more than high school graduates over a lifetime,  and those with master’s degrees nearly an additional half a million dollars on top of that.

The advancement of personal growth, underpinning a meaningful life, has  also played an important role in the overall college or university experience, particularly among schools dedicated to the liberal arts and sciences. Nor are these twin attributes — educating for a productive life and a meaningful life — incompatible. In his thoughtful and well-reasoned new book, “You Can Do Anything,” George Anders demonstrates the extraordinary way a liberal arts education broadens the career opportunities of new graduates, thus serving both goals.

In a time when the search common ground in our national dialogue seems more and more difficult to achieve, the Pew Report on attitudes toward higher education may be most significant precisely for its findings of one such common ground: The clear majority of college-educated Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, recognize that their higher education experience has played a major role in facilitating a productive career and a meaningful life.

Frederick M. Lawrence is the Secretary/CEO of The Phi Beta Kappa Society and is the former president of Brandeis University. He is also a senior research scholar at Yale Law School.


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