COMMENTARY | A colleague who just came back from pushing for more higher education funding on Capitol Hill during the sequester debate gave me the bad news. Republicans have put college funding in their sights before, and will likely do so again. But it isn’t such a smart idea, given that the group remains more conservative, on average, and tends to vote more Republican than non-college graduates.
Right now, the GOP is trying to figure out what to do. They’ve lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections, and lost what they considered a winnable race. Some point to declines in women, Hispanics and Asian-Americans who vote Republican less frequently than they used to. Strategies are offered as to how to woo these groups back.
But there’s another group that typically votes for Republicans, yet gets ripped all the time by conservatives like Rick Santorum for being bastions of liberalism. And those are college campuses and the students they graduate.
In 2004 and 2008, Republicans did better among college graduates than non-college graduates. Polls by the Christian Post indicate that Mitt Romney may have won this group again.
But the most illuminating evidence of college students comes from their improved ability to retain their Christian faith over others their age (18-24), which could provide the real secret for Republicans.
In research by Jeremy Uecker, Mark Regnerus and Margaret Vaaler titled “Losing My Religion: Religious Decline in Early Adulthood” the authors find “Religious decline does indeed vary by education level, but not in the way most might expect. For all three types of religious decline, it is the respondents who did not go to college who exhibit the highest rates of diminished religiosity. Those with the highest level of education – the respondents with at least a bachelor’s degree – are the least likely to curtail their church attendance.”
Uecker, Regnerus and Vaaler conclude “Emerging adults who do not attend college are most prone to curb all three types of religiousness in early adulthood. Simply put, higher education is not the enemy of religiosity that so many have made it out to be.”
Yet it doesn’t take long to find the Rick Santorums, Tea Partiers, and conservatives of the type Thomas Frank writes about in “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” who can’t wait to rip those “liberal anti-Christian colleges.” Yet the evidence and electoral data suggests that such rhetoric and anti-university votes continue to shrink the Republican Party base.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.