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Americans Are More Divided By College Degrees Than Ever – What Should Colleges Do?

As recently as 2015, polls showed that Americans of both parties had a positive view of colleges and universities.  But that was also the year when the eventual president of the United States first said “I love the poorly educated!”  

Now a new article in The Chronicle of Higher Education concludes:  America is more divided than ever between those with and without college degrees.  Our economic prospects, our political affiliations, even our health outcomes can depend on whether we have that particular credential listed on our resume.  

This means that higher education is going to be in the crosshairs of some very nasty fights.  One of them will be financial:  the more college funding is seen as a political issue, the more someone will want to cut it.  “(A) rift between voters based on the college degree would mean declining support for higher education among both the electorate and lawmakers, at a time when colleges face historic challenges from the pandemic and the coming enrollment cliff,” writer Eric Kelderman notes.  On a practical level, that could mean cuts, layoffs, and even closures.  

Another is diversity.  According to the Chronicle, the divide between the college educated and those without degrees does not exist in communities of color.  In those communities, support for college and higher education remains strong at every level.  

“Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, said the split among voters of different education levels is limited largely to Caucasians. “What we’re really talking about there is the split in white voters,” he said.“

Likewise:

“The Democratic electorate, as well as the demographics in higher education, looks more like the emerging demographics of the country, which will include a majority of nonwhite residents, said Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, a historically Black college. “The backlash is, ‘I don’t see myself in those kids, I don’t connect with that part of America, that’s not me,’” said Kimbrough.”

This likely means that colleges and universities are going to remain central to the struggle for racial equity - even in those cases where administrations are not seeking that struggle, or do not have policies that advocate for it.  

What the Chronicle doesn’t address, however, is what colleges and states should do about these problems.  

We believe that the purpose of education is - at its most broad - to help people.  To support their goals and to help them solve their problems.  While much of the partisan divide over education is simply that - a partisan divide - we also hear in it a call to action.  For a significant portion of the population, we are not seen as either relevant or accessible to helping them solve their problems.  That means colleges must find more ways to be relevant and to provide access.

At Calbright, this means admitting any adult Californian who is not already enrolled in school, and it means not charging them or forcing them to go into debt.  That increases access for everyone.  

It means experimenting with different methods of delivering education - not only modular, self-paced, online classes, but actually putting degrees aside entirely to focus on credentials and certifications that can be earned in less than a year.  

It means tying those certifications as closely to the job market as possible, making them directly relevant for upwardly mobile careers.  Combined, we believe this makes us more relevant to a significant sector of the population that is not already served.  

It also means keeping equity in mind.  The struggle to open access to education for everyone may be coming for colleges whether they seek it or not, but it’s definitely a struggle we choose.  

Access to education and the benefits of education shouldn’t be controversial - but if it is, we believe the solution is more access and relevance, not less.