For decades, both nationally and here in New York, elected officials focused on higher education policies when they were thinking about their legacies, from former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Higher Education Act to a grant program championed by U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell. But in terms of brass-tacks politics, few believed that election outcomes hinged on higher education policy. Reflecting this conventional wisdom, in Albany during the 1980s and ‘90s, lobbyists and advocates for higher education referred to themselves as “the wallflowers.”
Yet as columnist David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times last month, public colleges and universities serve as a critically important stepping stone for lower-income students. “Over the last several years, however, most states have cut their spending on higher education, some drastically,” Leonhardt notes. “Many public universities have responded by enrolling fewer poor and middle-class students – and replacing them with affluent students who can afford the tuition.”
For private colleges and universities, the debate often boils down to berating them over high tuition and student debt, with precious little attention paid to the fact that these private institutions have been quite adept at graduating students while often reaching down into the ranks of working-class students, including students of color, through scholarships and grants. But instead of a national debate exploring how government can support higher education institutions by providing more students from modest financial backgrounds with less costly options, we all too often see disinvestment in the public sector of higher education and a not-so-benign neglect of private colleges and universities.
That will change, I believe, because higher education is about to become a top-tier political issue capable of changing the outcome of elections. The political realist in me cautions that conventional wisdom is usually a lagging indicator of hard political currency. Consequently, candidates from both parties who are slow to chart this trend could get caught in the political equivalent of a riptide.
What’s more, the source of the rising significance of higher education lies in the politics, not the policy. So let's parse the politics before investigating the policy.
Higher education is on the cusp of becoming a wedge issue in American politics because educational attainment is becoming a key determinant of voting behavior. The exit polls for last year’s presidential election revealed an exquisite balance in the electorate when broken down by voters' level of education. This balance has carried over into the post-election polling of how voters feel about President Donald Trump, Republicans and Democrats.
Higher education is on the cusp of becoming a wedge issue in American politics because educational attainment is becoming a key determinant of voting behavior.
The 2016 exit polls revealed that 18 percent of the national electorate had a high school education or less, while at the other extreme, 18 percent of voters had a post-graduate degree. Additionally, 32 percent had a four-year college degree and the same share of the electorate had some college experience, but not a four-year degree.
Hillary Clinton carried those with postgraduate degrees 58 percent to 37 percent, but lost voters with a high school degree or less to Trump by 51 percent to 45 percent. Meanwhile, the 32 percent with college degrees supported Clinton by only 49 percent to 45 percent. But this group was clearly outvoted by the other 32 percent with some college, but no four-year degree, whom Trump carried 52 percent to 43 percent. Barack Obama carried the bloc of voters with some college experience in 2008 and 2012.
Pundits focused on the microfactors explaining why Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes while losing the Electoral College paid far too little attention to the larger shift to Trump among those with some college but no degree. In fact, this bloc was a crucial factor in key Electoral College states that were won by Obama in 2012, but swung to Trump in 2016 – Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida.
The level of support of these subgroups remains consequential, months after the election. A large part of Trump's decline in the polls to a 39.9 percent approval rating in the Real Clear Politics polling average, as of June 6, lies in the president’s decline among the third of the electorate that has some college experience. For example, in an April 17 Pew Research Center poll, Trump had a 39 percent approval rating with 54 percent disapproving. Among people with postgraduate degrees in the poll, 71 percent disapproved of the president and 57 percent of college graduates disapproved. Amid those with some college, 39 percent of those polled approved of Trump and 55 percent disapproved. For those with a high school education or less, the president was narrowly unpopular with 44 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving.
The political lesson is unmistakable: When the third of the electorate with some college supports Trump, he is formidable politically, but when these voters swing against him, the strong opposition of those with college and postgraduate degree holders overwhelms Trump's bedrock support among whites with only a high school degree or less.
These figures become persuasive political arithmetic, given the perfect balance along education levels in the national electorate. Half of the voting electorate has at least a four-year college degree, making the third of voters with some college the equilibrium point in American politics, given that less than a fifth of the electorate have never gone to college. Trump did not win the Electoral College because those with a high school education or less outvoted the college graduates and postgrads. Instead, he attracted what we can call the community college voter, especially in the Midwest, Florida and North Carolina. If Trump's GOP cannot hold the allegiance of these community college voters, then Republicans will not be in good shape heading into 2018 and 2020 because they are consistently losing the more educated voters.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces his free tuition plan alongside U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Kevin P Coughlin / Office of the Governor)
That means that as candidates catch on to the political realities attending this new math, they will focus more and more attention on policies that address the concerns of the 82 percent of the electorate that has had some form of higher education. Moreover, the mobilization of student advocacy on higher education issues could become a latent pool of political energy. The motivation for elected officials tackling higher education issues will no longer be legacy shopping. Instead, out of political necessity, elected officials will need to appeal to a broad range of voters who have benefited from higher education.
Let's project some of the issues that may become priorities as a consequence of this new political math.
First, student debt will become a major national issue. Congress will likely talk about student debt as a drag on the multiplier effect our economy needs to generate from consumer spending – from homes, furniture, appliances and automobile purchases – which is true. But they will also be seeking innovative approaches to win support from the more than 4 in 5 voters who at some point attended college.
At the state level, governors will likely emulate Gov. Andrew Cuomo's innovative leadership in enacting free tuition at state schools. This free tuition train began as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposal, which Hillary Clinton later adopted, but it has the makings of becoming a bipartisan priority, as reflected in the Republican state Senate supporting Cuomo's initiative. Second, governors and state legislatures around the nation will come under great pressure to end the decadeslong disinvestment in public higher education. The real political pressure that needs to be applied here will not be top-down lobbying from institutions like SUNY or CUNY, but from the broad mobilization of community college students through graduate school students – and their parents.
If Trump's GOP cannot hold the allegiance of community college voters, Republicans will not be in good shape heading into 2018 and 2020.
Third, states would be wise to remember what has made the state so successful at producing college graduates: robust public and private degree-granting institutions. In New York, private colleges and universities preceded the SUNY system, and smart politics has spurred a tradition of simultaneously bolstering public and private college and universities.
Cuomo's landmark tuition initiative benefited the public higher education institutions. So let's be on the alert for the state Legislature, working with the governor, to identify opportunities to advance measures that benefit private colleges and universities, which are often the largest employers in upstate New York.
For example, the state’s STEM Incentive Program already offers college scholarships for high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class to attend private institutions, which produce nearly 60 percent of the STEM – or science, technology, engineering and mathematics – bachelor’s degrees in the state. Will state lawmakers pass legislation this session to expand the program to include private institutions? Another bill to keep an eye on in Albany is the proposal to allow private institutions to participate in the Masters-in-Education Teacher Incentive Scholarship program, given that just shy of two-thirds of the state's graduate degrees are awarded by private colleges and universities.
Fourth, higher education can become an engine of economic development. Cuomo's life sciences initiative received $320 million in this year's state budget. This program has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves because it promises to transform New York's existing strength in biomedical research into an economic development generator, producing good jobs with large multiplier ratios. New York could follow the lead of states like Texas, California, Massachusetts and North Carolina, which have attended to both the recruitment and retention of researchers, as well as translating that research into commercialization.
Cuomo astutely set the priority for this program on developing a steady pipeline of translational research. One pragmatic key to its success will be whether the state maximizes the potential for academic health centers, which the legendary U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called our state's “crown jewel.” To become magnets for attracting National Institutes of Health funding and venture capital as well as big pharmaceutical investments would ultimately supply that translational research pipeline.
Fifth, the holy grail in melding good policy and smart politics in higher education will come to those states that find a way to get their employers and higher education institutions to collaborate on job placement. There are millions of high-tech blue-collar jobs available nationwide, carrying high salaries with good benefits that go unfilled because American students, especially those graduating from our community colleges, lack the skills employers need. Among the job titles are data scientist, data engineer and analytics managers, which all have starting salaries around $100,000 a year, according to a recent USA Today story.
Therefore, creating the template for states to facilitate the awarding of academic degrees, buttressed by job training boot camps, will be no easy task. Yet this hard work can uncover an economic development treasure trove, yielding political gold for the governors and the legislatures who succeed in this quest. The long-term political loyalty of the electorate's equilibrium point – those with some college, but not a four-year degree – is a prize worth seeking for both parties.
The policy progress and political prowess underlying higher education will not come easily, but more likely in fits and starts over the long haul. But if my postulates on the political arithmetic surrounding higher education are correct, the next generation of higher education advocates will not be known as wallflowers, but as gladiators.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP.