Our nation’s public colleges and universities—engines of opportunity, mobility, and knowledge generation—have been the envy of the world for decades. Yet today, many states, often those with Republican-led legislatures, are finding ways to decrease funding to these critically important institutions. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association found that state funding nationwide remains lower than it was immediately following the Great Recession.
Cutting funding for these educational institutions will cost the country far more in the long run than they add to state budgets. Beyond the positive economic and social benefits higher education provides, public colleges and universities have student bodies far more ideologically balanced than private ones. If the GOP truly cares about viewpoint diversity and issues of economic and social mobility, Republicans should help public institutions of higher education thrive.
Republicans may be quick to assume that college students today are decidedly left wing. But recent survey research by College Pulse of close to a thousand college students reveals they are no Democratic monolith. In fact, only 37 percent of college students surveyed identify as strong or weak Democrats while just 11 percent identify as strong or weak Republicans. This is still no slam-dunk for Democrats, as the majority of students (53 percent) identify as independents, leaners, or something else entirely.
The gap between college-age Democrats and Republicans narrows when focusing on students at public college and universities. About a third of students in public colleges identify as strong or weak Democrats, while only 12 percent identify as strong or weak Republicans. That nearly half (46 percent) of public college students identify as either independents or leaners means public schools are not liberal strongholds, even if liberal administrators outnumber conservative ones nearly 12 to 1.
While public institutions of higher education are home to politically diverse student bodies, private colleges in the U.S. lack the same balance. Today, a majority of students in private colleges and universities identify as Democratic (52 percent). Just 8 percent of private college students identify as Republican—less than half those at public institutions—and 32 percent of private students identify as independents or leaners. The Democrat to Republican ratio is appreciably higher on private campuses than public ones.
With Democrats at private colleges now outnumbering their Republican peers almost 7 to 1, students at private institutions may struggle to find the viewpoint diversity crucial to their development as critical thinkers. This is much less of a problem at public institutions, where students will be able to have far more diverse, heterodox experiences. Not being so outnumbered, conservative and centrist students at public schools may self-censor at lower levels than at private schools. Thus, students may be able to meet and engage with real difference and debate accordingly—and they may be able to welcome a far deeper set of speakers, clubs, and set of experiences.
The goals of higher education, including the pursuit of truth and the creation of an environment where the free exchange of ideas can occur with the best winning in a competitive marketplace, may be best realized in our public colleges and universities, for that is where far more student diversity resides. Students may find that they can question, speak, and share their views and ideas more openly and honestly in classrooms as well as in their dining halls, dormitories, and student centers. They may have a chance to learn, debate, and even disagree with American principles.
Moreover, I should add that students at private and public colleges do not just differ in their politics—they show different levels of political engagement, too. Whether they are voting, tweeting, protesting, or donating, three-quarters of students at private colleges say they are somewhat or very engaged in politics, compared to 62 percent of those at public institutions. Republicans should note that students at both public and private colleges across the U.S. are not enamored with country’s two top leaders. While a majority of undergraduates at private colleges approve of Biden’s handling his job as president (52 percent), only 41 percent of students at public colleges feel the same. Similarly, Vice President Harris, whose symbolism-rich appointment garnered early support from Gen Zers, has the approval of 45 percent of private college students and just 29 percent of those at public ones.
With stories of protests and cancellations regularly making the news out of the elite private colleges in New England and the West Coast, America’s colleges and universities are often perceived to be bastions of “woke” progressive students looking to tear down America’s sacred institutions. And while some extremely progressive students at some schools—including many of my own, Sarah Lawrence College in New York—are leading such charges, it is a mistake to assume these young social justice warriors represent the majority of our nation’s college students, especially those at public colleges and universities.
What the GOP should do to support public college and university campuses is promote operational efficiency, something that Republicans have historically embraced, and target one of the greatest sources of not only bloat and spending on campus, but also the source of many of the progressive and woke impulses: college administrators. Not only has this administrative class grown at rates significantly faster than enrollment and faculty, but this powerful group is far more progressive and interested in promoting a political agenda than even the liberal faculty who teach our students, and certainly than the more ideologically balanced student bodies.
Reigning in administrators would lower costs considerably and give students a better chance to think for themselves in dining halls, dormitories, and the far too numerous “centers” that dot the campus landscape where students are regularly told what to think and how to engage with others. The power of the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” bureaucrats can be used to the benefit of our public budgets and our students’ growth, and Republicans would be well served to focus their efforts there and continue to allow one of our nation’s greatest institutions to thrive.
In short, while private institutions of higher education are dominated by politically active liberals, students can find political diversity and engage in a wide range of ideas at publicly-funded colleges and universities. These institutions are not leftist bastions; they are teaching our students to learn, develop critical thinking skills, and make better lives for themselves. And they can be made even better by trimming the administrative bloat. Our great public institutions have created remarkable public goods for the nation and the world. It would absolutely be a mistake to defund them and thus diminish the impact they can have on their students, their communities, and the countless public spinoffs that emerge from these hallowed civic institutions.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.