Poll: Party divisions extend to impression of higher education

Posted at 10:47 PM, Jul 10, 2017

Think the pursuit of higher learning is immune from partisan polarization? Think again. A new poll from the Pew Research Center finds that colleges and universities are the latest institutions added to the list of those viewed through a partisan lens.

Overall, 55% say colleges and universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country, second to churches and religious organizations (59% positive) for positive impacts on the nation's life among the five institutions tested in the survey.

But in the last two years, there have been sharp changes in the way Republicans view America's colleges and universities. While Democrats continue to see them as an overwhelmingly positive force (72% say they have a positive effect on the country, about the same as in 2015), Republicans have had a near reversal. In September 2015, 54% of Republicans viewed colleges as a positive for the nation, but now, most Republicans (58%) say they are a negative.

The divide between voters who held college degrees and those who did not nearly defined last year's election campaign. A CNN study with the Kaiser Family Foundation last fall found a hint of the burgeoning GOP distaste for formal education. That survey asked those who did not hold a four-year college degree if having one would make their lives better, worse or no different at all. Among Democrats who did not have a degree, 70% said getting that B.A. or B.S. would make their lives better. Among Republicans in the same boat, just 48% agreed.

Some of the other partisan divides found in the poll were less surprising. Democrats are more positive about the impact of labor unions on Americans life, and Republicans were more positive about banks and other financial institutions.

Overall, the national news media are viewed more negatively (63%) than positively (28%), but the partisan gap behind those numbers grew. Over three surveys between 2010 and 2015, views of the news media among Democrats and Republicans followed the same trajectory, with Democrats less apt to see the media as having a negative effect on the way things were going in the US, but those in both parties shifting slightly more negative over time. In 2016, Republicans' views shifted sharply more negative, and this year, Democrats views moved significantly toward positive views of the media. Now, 85% of Republicans describe the media as a negative influence, while Democrats are about evenly split: 44% see it as a positive, 46% as a negative.

The poll also found mostly positive views of churches and religious organizations among both Democrats and Republicans. But Democrats were split along ideological and racial lines in assessing the impact of religious organizations. Most conservative or moderate Democrats described churches as having a positive impact (58%), while liberal Democrats were split (40% positive to 44% negative). Just 43% of white Democrats called them a positive influence, vs. 60% of Black or Hispanic Democrats.

The Pew Research Center survey was conducted by telephone June 8 through June 18 among a random national sample of 2,504 adults. Results among the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. It is higher for subgroups.