An unexpected issue in the 2012 election is whether or not rank-and-file Americans should aspire to a college degree. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have both made comments about higher education that could come back to haunt them in a general election.
“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob,” Santorum told a Tea Party meeting in Troy, Mich., on Feb. 25. “I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”
Romney, the all-but-certain nominee, was blunt when speaking in March at a metal assembly plant in Youngstown, Ohio: “It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that.”
There is a partisan logic to the Republican hostility to higher education: the well-educated — a reliable source of conservative support as recently as the 1980s — have been moving steadily toward the Democratic Party. In a head-to-head contest, a March 26 McClatchy-Marist Poll shows Romney ahead of Obama 47-42 among those without college degrees, while Obama leads Romney 51-42 among those with them. Similarly, those without college degrees lean toward voting for Republican congressional candidates 49-40, while those with them lean toward Democrats 46-44.
Not only are Democrats making gains among the better-educated, but these voters are becoming a larger share of the electorate. Exit polls show the growth of the college-educated voting bloc.
In 1984, those with college and advanced degrees made up 35.3 percent of the electorate. Reagan’s strongest margins were among the college educated, who backed him over Walter F. Mondale by a crushing 62.7-36.9 margin. Among all those with both college and advanced degrees, Reagan won 58.7 percent, a landslide margin.
Jump to 2008. Even though those with college degrees made up 27.9 percent of the population that year, they cast 45 percent of the presidential vote. These voters register and go to the polls in substantially higher numbers than the less well educated.
By 2008, the Republican advantage of the early 1980s among voters with a college degree or higher had disappeared. Barack Obama carried this demographic with 54.1 percent. He beat McCain 50-48 among those with bachelor’s degrees, and by a decisive 58-40 among the 17 percent of the 2008 electorate with post-graduate degrees.
The shifting allegiance of the better-educated – together with the growth of such pro-Democratic constituencies as single women, Hispanics and African-Americans — has been a crucial factor in the revival of the Democratic Party as a fully competitive force in presidential elections. The party’s gains have, in many respects, made up for losses among white working class voters.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the defection of Reagan Democrats gave the Republican Party a clear edge in national contests; by the 1990s and 2000s, the once reliably Republican affluent suburbs surrounding cities like New York and Philadelphia had moved in the opposite direction, empowering the Democratic Party to win the White House in 1992, 1996, and 2008, and the popular vote, if not the presidency, in 2000. By contrast, in the 1970s and 1980s, Republican presidential candidates won, on average, 59 percent of the upscale suburban vote.
The gains the Democrats made were concentrated in one major segment of the well-educated: professionals — salaried employees in schools and colleges, social workers, the arts, the natural and social sciences, knowledge/information workers, “symbol analysts,” “creatives” and so forth.
Andrew Gelman, director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University, has illustrated the voting trends among different job classifications in his book “Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.”
The graph below shows how professionals voted compared to the entire electorate.
At the same time, the percentage of the population employed in professional jobs has been growing steadily, from 16.4 percent of the workforce in 1970 to 22.2 percent in 2010.
While Democratic gains among those with undergraduate and advanced degrees have clearly benefitted the party, there are costs.
The replacement of working-class whites with upscale professionals has turned the Democratic coalition into an alliance with a built-in class division. Instead of representing the bottom half of the income distribution as it did from the 1930s to the 1960s, the party has become bifurcated, with roughly 60 percent of the base vote cast by relatively poor and heavily minority voters, and much of the remainder provided by relatively affluent social and cultural liberals.
While constituting a minority, the relatively upscale wing clearly dominates party policy and provides the majority of the activists who run campaigns, serve as delegates to the convention and have become the core of the party’s donor base.
The leverage of the highly-educated wing is reflected in the priority placed on the culture war issues that are of key importance to this wing. Support for abortion rights and gay rights, for example, is an essential litmus test for Democratic presidential candidates. There is no parallel demand that candidates protect and expand food stamps, Medicaid, or other means-tested programs for the poor.
On the Republican side of the aisle, the aversion to federally funded scholarship aid – as demonstrated, for example, in the budget passed last week by the Republican House — has significant consequences for the party’s core supporters.
The children of the white working class are in need of financial support to pay for tuition at a two or four-year colleges as a path to upward mobility. The overwhelming majority of Pell Grants, 63.3 percent, go to low income whites, while 11.8 percent goes to African-American students, 13.2 percent to Hispanics, 6.8 percent to Asian-Americans, and the rest to other groups.
This year, Romney will need to win by a wide margin among those for whom access to post-secondary education is a key issue — particularly white men whose wages have stagnated or eroded more than those of women.
The following chart, put together by the M.I.T. economists Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, shows what has happened to the wages of men with various levels of education working full time (high school dropout, high school graduate, some college, college graduate, greater than college).
For men without college degrees, 1972-3 marked — in economic terms — the best year of their lives, and earnings adjusted for inflation have gone downhill over the forty years since then. Only men with college degrees, and especially those with post-graduate degrees, did better in 2008 than they had in 1973.
A central theme of the Romney campaign is that he intends to replace the Democratic “entitlement state” with the restoration of America as “a land of opportunity and a beacon of freedom.”
In the fight for Republican primary votes, it may make political sense for Santorum to mock higher education as the province of liberal elitists and for Romney to display deficit-consciousness by declaring his opposition to government assistance for college tuition.
In the general election, Romney faces a far tougher sell. Federal aid to education has strong, bipartisan support among voters, with more than 60 percent of Republicans and Democrats opposed to making any cuts, according to a Gallup poll from Jan. 26, 2011.
Romney’s refusal to promise that he will “give you government money to pay for your college” is a risky approach to courting ambitious lower income voters. Democrats see Romney setting a trap for himself and have already begun to lay the general election groundwork.
The increasing salience of education provides Democrats with an effective means of countering the problem of an underperforming economy, as President Obama demonstrated in a speech on Feb. 27: “We can’t allow higher education to be a luxury in this country. It’s an economic imperative that every family in America has to be able to afford.”
Romney, in turn, appears to recognize that he has stepped onto treacherous terrain. His Web site now declares: “Post-secondary education cannot become a luxury for the few; instead, all students should have the opportunity to attend a college that best suits their needs. Whether it is public or private, traditional or online, college must be available and affordable.”
Still, Romney does not specify which actions he would have the federal government take to prevent post-secondary education from becoming a luxury for the few. Instead, his Web site trumpets the potential for initiatives at the state level, where Romney, speaking as a former governor himself, “knows what can be accomplished when governors are empowered to reform their education systems.”