Does College Make You Liberal?

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob… There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college — he wants to remake you in his image.” –Rick Santorum

After taking heat from the President, TV talk show hosts, and governors in his own party, Rick Santorum finally distanced himself from his controversial statement about the perils of a college education. As has been extensively discussed, Santorum’s premise was wrong: President Obama has never called for universal attendance of four-year college, although he did say that every American should receive some kind of training beyond a high school diploma.

It is easy to see the comment as another example of a Republican candidate pandering to the hardcore conservative base in an effort to gain some traction in a tight political race. But there is a deeper mystery that has not been discussed: people who identify themselves as strong Republicans are much more likely to be college educated than strong Democrats. Is Rick Santorum alienating his base?

What are the Politics of  College Graduates?

I created the table below using the 2006 General Social Survey. As the chart shows, 14 percent of strong Democrats did not finish high school, compared to 9 percent of strong Republicans. Conversely, 16 percent of strong Democrats hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 24 percent of strong Republicans. The same disparity holds when considering those who identify as not strong Republicans and Democrats.

The association is not surprising since higher income voters skew Republican, and income and education are highly correlated. The fact that Republicans are overrepresented among the educated is well known to political scientists, but is not generally understood by the public writ large. There has existed a pervasive mythology, at least since Reagan, that Republicans are the political party of the white working class. This idea is coded in Santorum’s statement about “good decent men and women” – the kind of people who punch time cards and drive pickup trucks.

The idea that blue-collar voters are Republicans has been picked up by the chattering class, and is a staple of rightwing television and radio. Larry Bartels and Andrew Gelman both draw attention to this misconception in their books, quoting rightwing political pundit Tucker Carlson as a classic offender: “Democrats win rich people. Over $100,000 in income, you are likely more than not to vote for Democrats. People never point that out. Rich people vote liberal. I don’t know what that’s all about.” Whether deliberate or unintentional, perpetuating this false idea is politically consequential. It insulates Republican political leaders from the charge that they are representing economically elite constituencies, and helps to link Democrats with cultural elitism. Obama may bemoan the price of arugula at Whole Foods, but his voters are actually more likely to buy their groceries at Wall Mart. This cultural split may work in favor of social conservatives, even as non-college educated voters are broadly in favor of more progressive steps to reduce social inequality. In a study of political attitudes, the Center on American Progress describes the split thus: “compared to college-educated elites, non-college-educated Americans are more populist and progressive than elites in some attitudes about the role of government and fighting inequality and much more conservative on cultural and national security areas.” (pg.5)

College Indoctrination

There is, of course, another piece to Santorum’s comment: what about those liberal college professors? Republicans frequently claim that their views are underrepresented in college faculty lounges and on syllabi. This concern is heightened for highly competitive schools, where Republicans have long complained about being persecuted by “politically correct” liberals. Santorum, who happens to hold not only a college degree, but also an MBA and a JD, said that during his time at Penn State University that numerous professors: “docked my grades because of the viewpoints I expressed and the papers that I wrote.”

A lack of trust in the agenda of college professors is palpable when considering responses to this statement on the 1998 GSS (the most recent time the question was asked): “I trust the judgment of the teachers and professors who decide what high school and college students should be reading.” Among strong Democrats, 12 percent reported that they strongly agreed with this statement, among strong Republicans only 2 percent strongly agreed. Conversely, 17 percent of strong Republicans strongly disagreed and 5 percent of strong Democrats. Respondents were not probed to explain why they trust or do not trust professors, so can only speculate about some of the potential factors. One obvious one is the fear of indoctrination by the left – the caricature is that lefty professors take upright conservative youth and turn them against traditional family values and toward a progressive, feminist, liberal agenda.

As far as I know, the evidence in favor of the indoctrination hypothesis is relatively weak. A recent major longitudinal study conducted by researchers at UCLA finds that college tends to transform many students, making them more spiritually curious, and on average, somewhat more liberal between their freshman and junior years. It is unclear, however, whether these effects persist after students graduate, enter the workforce, and begin to form families. Moreover, there is evidence showing that young adults that do not go to college undergo a similar leftward shift, but that this shift does not necessarily persist – this may simply be an age effect, and not an effect of college exposures.

What does the future hold?

Cultural background, especially the political preferences of one’s family members, may exert a more powerful force on political beliefs than college attendance on its own. People that are more likely to be conservative have historically been more likely to have the means to send their children to college, and college education in turn increases processes of social and geographic isolation that can perpetuate political polarization. Of course, this process need not be fully deterministic – even as college replicates certain forms of social advantage, it can also challenge the fragile alignment of social and economic interests on the right. I would like to see, for example, whether college education transforms beliefs about issues like climate change or gender relations toward more liberal perspectives (even among conservatives).

Second, it is important to understand how long-running demographic shifts in the United States may change the face of college graduates. Even if the rate of college going stagnates among Hispanics in the future (or even declines), the proportion of all college graduates from Hispanic background will likely increase in the coming decades just as the Hispanic boom hits college. This population has historically favored Democrats, but their allegiances are up for grabs in the long term.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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4 Responses to Does College Make You Liberal?

  1. Pingback: OLSEN: Dangers of academia’s ‘indoctrination mills’ – John Malcolm

  2. Pingback: the 3 forms of influence: rewards, indoctrination, and punishments « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

  3. W00t says:

    I would think learning the basics of 20th century American history would skew most people liberal, unless they really stand to profit from injustices to others. I was pretty liberal to begin with, but learning about the injustices of the industrial revolution and the union busting opened my eyes to just how much worse life would be for most Americans without liberalism. Realizing the The New Deal, the G.I. Bill, and the Civil Rights Act occurred only recently and with a huge fight, and how much less opportunities working people would have today without them – totally made me a staunch liberal. It’s hard to be on the wrong side of history.

    • pat rad says:

      you’ve been given the Liberal Polemic Version of US history that makes their claims glorious … but its wrong. The New Deal was an economic failure (see “FDR’s Folly”). You probably didnt read the part where LBJ stole his Senate election, where in fact FDR *did* have soviet spies that hurt our national security (Alger Hiss lied), where good Presidents like Warren harding invited the NAACP to the White House just a few years after segregationist Wilson had imposed limits on blacks in Govt. (Yet liberal historians treat Wilson as a swell guy and harding as a nobody). You never read how Harding solved the depression of 1920-1921 while balancing the budget – with tax cuts – because it would make the big govt policies of Hoover and FDR look incompetent (they were). You probably thought the ‘robber barons’ really were, but didnt read the real story of how industrial development advanced the standard of living enormously and created the worlds first middle class. It goes on and on. One treatment of this is the “Patriots History of the United States”. You’ve only been convinced of liberalism because you got the biased view from that side.

      The more history I have learned, not just US History, but other nations, the more wrong American leftism has proven to be. Leftism has destroyed country after country (Russia, China, Cuba, etc. due to communism, countries like Argentina that fell prey to economic populism of Peron, etc.). Liberal / leftist / socialist policies are wrong and dangerous at home an abroad. That is what history has proven.

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