In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 58% of Republicans and conservative-leaning respondents said they felt that colleges and universities negatively affect the U.S. By comparison, only 19% of Democrats and liberal-leaning respondents felt the same way. It is impossible to know exactly what about higher education respondents perceived harmful. Regardless, evidence concerning its value in improving our lives is clear.
College-educated Americans earn higher salaries, experience lower rates and shorter durations of unemployment, commit fewer crimes, live longer and healthier lives, and are more likely to parent children who subsequently attain high levels of education. Graduates also overwhelmingly occupy positions of leadership and wealth in every sector of our economy. Hence, to suggest college is somehow bad is inconsistent with decades of research that proves otherwise.
Conservative survey respondents, then, were likely being critical not of higher education’s role in engendering success, but of what they believe to be the role of postsecondary institutions in promoting liberal values and suppressing conservative viewpoints. More than 10,000 undergraduates have participated in my research studies on campus racial climates; many are white and politically conservative. Some students of color in my studies also are conservative; they rarely characterize their campuses as racist.
More liberal students of color I have interviewed describe in horrifying detail their encounters with white classmates and professors who attack them with cultural stereotypes, noose hangings, racist assumptions about their intellectual competence, and racial epithets (including the N-word). Through their protests on campuses in recent years, these students and their white supporters have attempted to help higher education leaders better understand their racial realities. As I noted in my 2016 Washington Post article, these participants in my climate studies are exercising their freedom of speech by making more widely known what they experience on campuses at which they have been racially underrepresented and oppressed for generations. Conservatives typically fail to see that many of the protests and activism by liberal-leaning students are not intended to force progressive values on everyone, but to defend against the racism they constantly encounter on campus.
Given the racial composition of the Republican Party, it is plausible that many of its members don’t understand what and why students of color are protesting. Members of a political party that has so few college-educated people of color probably have not heard even a small fraction of the examples that I have heard on campuses I have studied. Therefore, their claims of liberal brainwashing are often anecdotal and largely exclusive of underrepresented students’ perspectives.
White participants in my climate research, including conservatives, usually confess feeling woefully ill-prepared for citizenship and leadership in a racially diverse democracy. In other words, few feel they learned enough in college about communities of color, acquired the skills necessary to lead racially diverse workplaces, or developed the competencies needed to address longstanding racial issues in our society.
Because our colleges annually produce the overwhelming majority of racially underprepared industry leaders in the U.S., most of whom are white, higher education helps sustain racial inequity and injustice in our nation. If this is why conservative survey respondents believe colleges and universities negatively affect our nation, I have no choice but to agree with them.
Shaun R. Harper is the Clifford and Betty Allen professor at the University of Southern California, and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center. He also is president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.