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Republicans, Democrats Disagree About The Point Of Higher Education

The think tank New America has a new report out on Americans’ perceptions of higher education. Researchers Ernest Ezeugo, Rachel Fishman, and Sophie Nguyen conducted a survey of American adults in partnership with polling firm Ipsos that solicited respondents’ views on the value and purpose of college. The report broke down survey results by political party, providing some fascinating insights at a time of high political polarization.

On many issues, Republicans and Democrats are in agreement. But on at least one point—how and why higher education should be funded—a big gulf exists between the two parties.

The New America survey asked respondents to choose which of two alternative views more closely aligned with their own. Most Democrats (76%) indicated that “the government should fund higher education because it is good for society,” while a slight majority of Republicans (52%) said that “students should fund their own education because it is a personal benefit.”

Preston Cooper/Forbes Source: New America, “Varying Degrees 2018.”

The disparity in opinions between the two parties reveals a fundamental disagreement about the point of higher education. Democrats seem to believe that more people going to college generates large benefits even for those who don’t enroll. These social benefits dwarf individual students’ returns. Therefore, the government should step in to make sure there’s sufficient investment in higher education—perhaps even bearing the full cost.


Republicans, by contrast, seem to believe that most of the benefit of college is private, reflected in the earnings premium graduates enjoy over their less-educated peers. Graduates who owe their high earnings to education should shoulder the cost. After all, why should taxpayers who don’t have college degrees pay to support the high wages of people who do?

Interestingly, people with and without college degrees barely differed on this question. Among both college graduates and people with a high school degree or less, roughly six in ten respondents viewed higher education as a social good to be funded by taxpayers. (Roughly three in ten respondents in both groups took the opposite view.) Other demographic breakdowns such as race and income produced just moderate divides on the issue. Nothing predicts your views on the point of higher education quite as well as your political party.

Both Democrats and Republicans can claim research on their side; separate economic studies have found that higher education creates both social benefits and individual returns. Of course, there are arguments against both positions as well. More higher education may create negative externalities such as degree inflation that cancel out the social benefits. In addition, high private returns to college may not be sustainable over the long term; increases in the supply of college graduates may eventually push down their wages.

The wording of New America’s survey question nudged respondents to pick a side, but it’s likely that many respondents of both parties believe that higher education generates both social and individual returns. In that case, the appropriate funding structure would require students to pay tuition, but defray it with partial government subsidies. That happens to be exactly the system we have now.

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