Politics Divides How Americans View Higher Education’s Response To The Pandemic

Americans are about equally divided in their opinions about whether colleges that reopened their campuses this fall for in-person attendance did the right thing. Half of those surveyed said those campuses made the right decision, and 48% indicated they didn’t, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The nation’s views on whether campus leaders made the right choice when bringing students back to campus are deeply divided along party lines. Among Republicans or people who lean Republican, 74% said in-person campuses had done the right thing, compared to just 29% percent of Democrats or individuals who lean Democratic saying the same.

The poll provides another piece of evidence suggesting how influential political forces have been in shaping colleges’ reopening plans. Other recent research revealed that campuses’ reopening decisions were linked to the political identity of their state, with both public and private universities in red states more likely to open in person.

This partisan gap is just one more example of how political affiliation influences Americans’ views of actions concerning the coronavirus more broadly. Previous Pew Research Center surveys found that Republicans and Democrats differ in their views about the severity of the public health crisis, restrictions on businesses, and mask wearing.

The new Pew survey also found that by a more than 2:1 margin, Americans believe the educational value of online courses does not equal that of in-person learning. While majorities of both Republicans and Democrats express this view, Democrats (33%) were a bit more likely than Republicans (26%) to say online classes provide an equal value.

College graduates were also particularly skeptical about on-line classes. Among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, 75% believed online classes didn’t provide an equal educational value. Among those with some college education, 67% held that view, as did 64% of respondents with a high school diploma or less.

Views of Higher Education’s General Direction

The survey also included the following question: “Now, thinking about the higher education system, that is colleges and universities, in the United States today…Do you think the higher education system in the U.S. is generally going in the right direction or wrong direction?”

The answers make one thing clear: Higher education is facing a critical public. Only 41% indicated they thought higher education in the U.S. was generally going in the right direction, while a majority (56%) said it’s going in the wrong direction. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found similar concerns – only half of American adults thought colleges and universities were having a positive effect on the way things were going in the country. About four-in-ten (38%) said they were having a negative impact – up from 26% in 2012.

Partisan political identification is strongly associated with opinions about higher education. Democrats are about evenly split over the direction of higher education – about half (49%) say higher education is going in the right direction,