ON THE AGENDA | DECEMBER 6TH, 2016 | ERIN KNEPLER

Voting, Division and Higher Education

This fall, two pieces of conventional wisdom regarding higher education were turned on their heads by the American public.

The 2016 presidential election cemented a long-perceived trend: our great country is becoming increasingly divisive. Moreover, election results indicate that ideological divisions are largely linked to educational attainment.

Meanwhile, this fall, we witnessed two pieces of conventional wisdom regarding higher education get turned on their heads by the American public. While having a college degree has long been associated with voter participation, this election seems to have interrupted longstanding historical trends. And, while experts and policymakers link college attainment to success in the workforce, Americans told us they no longer perceive this to be true.

Higher Education and Civic Engagement

Traditionally, a person with a college education has a higher likelihood to vote. The 2016 presidential election, however, flipped that historical trend on its head. According to 2016 exit poll data collected by Edison Research, there was an uptick in white male voters with less than a bachelor’s degree – that is, voters who possessed a high school degree, some college or an associate degree.

In order to better understand historical voting trends, I examined Census data collected on reported voting and registration, by age, sex and educational attainment from the past last seven election cycles (i.e., 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, 1996, 1992, and 1988). The table below details the aggregated reported voting rate. It shows that those with lower levels of formal education have consistently lower voting rates.

While the 2016 voter turnout data is continuing to trickle in over the next few weeks and months, it is becoming clear that education levels did impact this election. I’ve been closely following my favorite data wonk, Nate Silver, and his recent blogs on FiveThirtyEight about the election. Recently, Silver did a full analysis of all 981 U.S. counties with 50,000 or more people and sorted it by the share of the population that had completed at least a four-year college degree. He found that, “it appears as though educational levels are the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016.” This analysis tells me that our old belief that individuals with a college degree are more likely to vote doesn’t match reality. Other groups are voting at higher rates now too.

Higher Education and Job Attainment

Another thing we often hear from leaders is that college education is important to getting a good job. I still believe this is true, but in recent public opinion research we conducted, supported by The Kresge Foundation, we found that Americans' attitudes toward higher education have shifted in the years since the Great Recession.

Before 2009, increasing numbers of Americans said that a college education is necessary for success in today's working world. But in our 2016 research, just 42 percent of Americans say a college degree is necessary. That’s 13 percentage points lower than what we saw in 2009. We saw pessimism toward higher education grow in other ways as well. For example, nearly half of Americans – 46 percent – say a college education is a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities.

Now is a time of great change and turmoil, so we’re not quite sure what it means that these two pieces of conventional wisdom have been flipped.

What we do know is that there’s a huge divide in our country. Given this division seems linked with educational attainment, higher education will remain an important issue. While we all don’t need to see eye to eye, we do need to work together. To do so, we need more dialogue. We need to not only elevate a diversity of voices, but we also need to listen and really hear each other in order to forge common ground. Pubic Agenda and other organizations have a role in helping us improve dialogue and collaboration among leaders and communities.


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