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Class Warfare

Is College Driving Political Division?

Americans may appear to be split along educational lines—but the dysfunction goes much deeper.

Illustration by Dan Page

Did you go to college? I did, and it was an interesting experience. I attended a prestigious and expensive school, and there were a lot of people there from various backgrounds; many of them were very wealthy, the children of lawyers and bankers, but many of them, like me, were from middle-class families and had arrived on campus only thanks to generous financial assistance from the university’s bulbous endowment, along with student loans. Some of the people at my school were conservative, but most of them were very liberal, and I spent a lot of time attending protests on the quad and engaging in hair-pulling conversations about how to ensure that our cafeteria food menus—designed and served by a company that also caters prisons—were inclusive for all students.

Before attending college, I grew up in a quasi-suburban town in Florida, and there were many kinds of people there as well. Most of them were from middle-class families and went on to attend public universities, thanks to generous state tuition grants, but many of them were from lower-income backgrounds and did not earn bachelor’s degrees. Some of them enrolled in college only to drop out and smoke weed; others got low-wage jobs and became addicted to pills; still others got low-wage jobs and didn’t do any drugs. I have a lot of friends from high school who never attended college or even wanted to.

Since I graduated from college and moved to New York City, though, I doubt whether I have befriended more than a handful of people who did not have bachelor’s degrees. Most of my friends attended private colleges, prestigious and expensive ones like mine, and a lot of them even attended Harvard. So I have participated in what some commentators call “the Big Sort,” the self-segregating process whereby young liberals end up in yuppified big cities and wizened conservatives book it out to rural backwaters. In my case, the magic wand used to effect this sorting process was a bachelor’s degree in English literature.

After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It
by Will Bunch
William Morrow, 320 pp., $28.99

If you’re reading this article, and you’re under a certain age, I imagine this story sounds pretty familiar. It may not sound like your own life story—perhaps you grew up in a big liberal city and didn’t have to move to one—but it probably sounds like the life story of someone you know. In case you haven’t heard, Americans are divided along educational lines: Those who went to college are clustered together in blue dots, reading The New Republic and listening to Phoebe Bridgers, and those who didn’t are out in the boonies watching Fox News and eating McDoubles. The reason for this is, somehow, to some extent, college.

The college problem is overwhelming but intractable; it emerged not by design, but rather over the course of decades, thanks to dozens of different policies and several generational and cultural shifts. It advantages a small group of Americans but disadvantages many other groups, all for different reasons. It’s pervasive but also impossible to solve, and as a result you can say pretty much anything you want about it and still sound correct. This makes it a great topic for newspaper columnists of all political stripes, and a venerated member of this species, the left-leaning Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer, has applied himself to solving the problem in a new book. After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It is Bunch’s effort to attack the problem of educational polarization, first by outlining the history of U.S. higher ed and then by proposing a new system for making it more egalitarian.

The ambition here is admirable, but the approach is flawed: Like many other pundits of all stripes, Bunch sees modern higher education as the progenitor of our profound economic split, when it’s really just another product of that split. In other words, college isn’t the problem itself—it’s a symptom.

Bunch begins his narrative in Knox County, Ohio, home to Kenyon College, which he views as a prime example of the state of contemporary higher education. A lot of the students at Kenyon are very liberal and very privileged, many of them hailing from blue cities in blue states, and the area that surrounds the college is built-up and wealthy. In the rest of the county, by contrast, the socioeconomic situation is grim: The glassware plants and engine factories closed down years ago, opioid cases are flooding the courts, and the only hopes of most people for a future different from this rest with Donald Trump.

The townies and the gownies exist side by side, but they’re unintelligible to each other: On the morning after Trump’s election, as Kenyon’s students gathered on campus in tears, one student was quoted in the school newspaper insisting, “We need to go out into the community and ask them what their story was.” Meanwhile, Trump-loving Republicans in the county circled around liberal protesters in pickup trucks bearing huge Trump flags. As Bunch sees it, the “actual encounters between the red and the blue of central Ohio are sporadic, unexpected, and culturally jarring.” The political shift in Knox County reflected a shift in national politics, one that seemed to be driven by the same big forces: White noncollege grads accounted for about 27 percent of President Joe Biden’s voters in the 2020 election, whereas they had accounted for about 60 percent of Bill Clinton’s supporters in 1992.

Bunch’s first endeavor is to figure out how this situation came to be: Why does an institution like Kenyon even exist? How is it possible that a school founded by a nineteenth-century Episcopal bishop would become an aerie for privileged kids from the Upper West Side, alienated beyond measure from a mass of resentful conservatives who work at McDonald’s franchises and tire factories?

This story begins on a high note with the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill, which paid for millions of World War II veterans to attend college, jump-starting a revolution in college access: The number of people in the United States with college degrees more than doubled between 1940 and 1950. Elite university administrators like the University of Chicago’s own Robert Maynard Hutchins worried that the bill would degrade prestigious schools into “hobo jungles” full of laggard students on federal aid, but higher education institutions soon came to reconcile themselves to a kind of symbiosis with the federal government. Cold War anxieties spurred Congress to pour billions of dollars into grant programs for math and science, allowing many state schools to expand their degree programs and build large dormitories for thousands of students. College ceased to be a niche pursuit for a select group of future lawyers and politicians and instead became a jumping-off point for entry into the burgeoning middle class.

There are numerous reasons why that system collapsed, and Bunch focuses on a few of them. The first is that we didn’t “make college a right.” In part because of the federal government’s largesse, tuition at most schools was cheap or nonexistent, so the massive expansion of welfare benefits during Johnson’s Great Society era didn’t include higher education. Instead of funding college the way it funded Medicare, by subsidizing the cost of procuring the service, the federal government doled out hodgepodge research grants to steer the course of university investment toward math and science. Bunch describes this as a “deliberate decision” to “make higher education a personal good” (it’s not exactly clear by whom the decision was made) and argues that it caused severe fragmentation in the world of higher education later on. He wants to argue that if the government had just funded students to go to college, rather than funding colleges to build dorms and laboratories, we might never have ended up with the balkanized system we have today, where top achievers compete for entry into private Ivies with massive endowments, or else take out massive loans to attend, while most other students attend in-state schools where tuition is subsidized to semi-affordable levels.

The other problem was that the first generation of students who entered this new higher ed ecosystem also happened to be one of the most liberated and rebellious in history, and the colleges became laboratories for their struggle against the old world. The protests and demonstrations led by the likes of Mario Savio, leader of the Berkeley free speech movement, soon provoked a backlash from the powers-that-still-were, a political turnabout Bunch captures in the chapter title “Why the Kent State massacre raised your tuition.” The causality isn’t quite as neat as that, but the big picture is accurate: The haywire activity of the ’60s provoked a hostile reaction from the so-called Moral Majority, focused in part on the radicalism of the decade’s college-age population. As Bunch sees it, this was the origin point of a political anti-intellectualism that would later lead conservative politicians to shift resources away from higher education. In a famous memo written during the Nixon administration, the conservative lawyer Lewis Powell bemoaned that college graduates “seek opportunities to change a system which they have been taught to distrust.” Ronald Reagan sneered that the prototypical campus hippie was someone who “looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheeta.” Between the 1970s and the 2000s, overall state funding for higher education fell by around 30 percent.

Meanwhile, there was another secret history taking shape—the one that led to the student loan debt crisis. The 1965 Higher Education Act had allowed the government to act as a guarantor and subsidizer of private student loans from banks; nearly a decade later, the Pell grant program added a middling amount of direct aid to the funding ecosystem, and in the 1990s Congress allowed the federal government itself to start issuing and servicing loans at low interest rates, paving the way for a rapid increase in total borrowing, one that over the course of decades shifted the cost burden of education from states and philanthropies to individual students. The widespread availability of debt and grant funding allowed private colleges to ratchet up tuition costs over the course of decades, knowing that some people would pay, and as funding for public education dried up, state schools had to compensate by raising costs as well. The true death spiral began after the Great Recession: Overall student debt has nearly tripled to around $1.75 trillion since 2008.

At first, the existence of the student loan debt crisis might seem to cut against Bunch’s notion that a college education is the dividing line of economic prosperity in the twenty-first century, since, if college comes with a mountain of debt, graduates emerge from their degrees less well off than they started. Yet it’s more complicated than that. For millions of young people entering the labor market, the irreplicable benefits of a college degree have more than justified the financial risk of taking out student loans. The stereotypical image of the graduate student in Andalusian literature who went a quarter-million dollars into debt only to be shocked at the lack of good-paying jobs in her field might be a good rhetorical punching bag for the right, but almost everyone who takes out loans to attend college is making a rational calculation about their prospects for entering the white-collar labor market. Millennials without bachelor’s degrees make only 62 percent as much as those with bachelor’s degrees, and the unemployment rate for millennials with a high school diploma during the Great Recession was more than three times as high as those with college degrees.

Returning to Knox County, it’s easy to see how this situation could become explosive. If the people in the county with the best economic prospects are the ones who spend all day discussing Judith Butler and postcolonial theory, and not the ones who work 10-hour shifts at the tire shop, that’s going to make the latter group pretty pissed off. The students at Kenyon aren’t better off because they discuss Judith Butler, of course, but because the degree they or their parents are buying will one day allow them to get a job at Google or Wachtell, Lipton. Just as one might imagine a leopard’s spots are the reason he moves so fast, many people on the outside of an institution like Kenyon can’t help but conclude that it’s the students’ adherence to a leftist cultural hegemony that allows them to enter the ether of white-collar work. The students themselves, by the same token, can’t help but ascribe the political views of the guys at the tire shop to the fact that they never got to spend a semester reading Judith Butler. Neither side is quite correct, but you can’t blame them for thinking the way they do.

Like many contemporary pundits, Bunch is an observer rather than an excavator. He’s less interested in the nitty-gritty policies that created the “college problem” than in how the problem manifests in contemporary life. To this end, he presents us at the midway point of the book with an interlude about “the four people you meet in today’s America,” a contemporary update on the theory of the four humors, meant to encapsulate today’s partisan divide along educational lines.

His choice of archetypes is quite revealing: There’s a college-educated suburban mom who starts a Resistance-esque protest in her town; a young indebted liberal who gets involved with a student loan payment strike; a Trump enthusiast; and a down-and-out pair of brothers who respectively commit suicide and overdose on opioids. Three out of these four avatars are political activists of some kind, and the fourth avatar is dead. As Bunch sees it, political division is the gravest and most significant consequence of the “college problem,” so it’s only natural he views the most politically engaged members of society as the most typical. In widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots, the modern college system has also distorted public life, pushing people toward the extremes.

Bunch is not the only one who thinks along these lines: You can find any number of articles in major newspapers these days that attempt to diagram our present polarization along educational lines. In the years since Trump’s election victory, liberals and conservatives alike have come to see our present political divide as a grand battle between coastal elites and heartland down-and-outs, and the narrative itself has come to assume a powerful influence over public debate even if the reality on the ground doesn’t always back it up. For every wealthy suburban wine mom who detests Trump, there’s an equally wealthy HVAC company owner who spends his spare time ranting about illegals, and there are plenty of dispossessed and at-risk young people in blue cities as well as in deep-red hamlets.

Furthermore, the focus on the division created by the Big Sort makes it difficult for Bunch to come up with any solutions. Free four-year college would be tough, because there is “little” to “suggest widespread enthusiasm for this plan”; free community college would be a “tough sell,” because of the stigma associated with two-year schools; and student loan forgiveness would be a “hard sell” as well, unless paired with a minimum-wage increase. In the end, to avoid pissing anyone off, he settles on an idea from way out of left field: a federally funded national service year that would put the nation’s teenyboppers to work repairing drainage ditches, running youth programs, etc. Such a program would repair America’s grand derangement by forcing kids from different social and political backgrounds to spend some quality time together, and would also buttress our crumbling infrastructure—most important, however, it would repair national divisions and move us closer to Bunch’s goal of summoning “a shared sense of national purpose buried deeply within our souls.”

Ridiculous as the idea of a national service program might sound, Bunch’s difficulty in solving the college problem isn’t just an ordinary case of Columnist Brain—it also points to a larger truth about the “college problem” itself. Like just about every other problem we have, the current higher education landscape in the United States is the product of numerous different policy decisions, some the result of avarice, and others of inadequate foresight. This state of affairs isn’t all that old, but over the past two decades it has become intertwined with a number of different social and historical dynamics, so that now “education” is as much an identity as it is an industry. As the coalitions that sustain the two major parties have shifted, politicians in those parties have shifted their rhetoric to match, so that Democrats now sound as if they’re talking to college graduates, and Republicans now sound as if they’re talking to people who hate college. Policy played a role in creating this state of affairs, but that doesn’t mean that individual reforms to education can unmake it.

That’s because the “college problem” is not a problem with the U.S. higher education system, but a problem with the economy today. The rampage of deindustrialization, the explosive growth of modern finance, and the erosion of union power have combined to create an economy with well-paying white-collar jobs concentrated in a few places and low-paying blue-collar jobs dispersed everywhere else. Small is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, etc. The policy mishmash that Bunch describes is the reason why college has become the only real way for a kid in a low-income area to get a white-collar profession, but it isn’t the reason why the economy is organized the way it is. Even if we did make college free for everyone to attend, and even if everyone did agree to attend, there would be no guarantee that it would alter the underlying structure of the economy; after all, part of the problem with the student loan debt crisis is that a college degree no longer ensures entry into the white-collar workforce anyhow.

It’s clear enough that we can’t solve this problem just by enabling everyone to go to college, since the labor market to which the diploma functions as an entry pass will remain more or less the same, but how else can we guarantee happiness and stability for workers on the low end of the economic totem pole?

The answer lies in another aspect of the postwar economic order for which Bunch’s book serves as a kind of eulogy. The fragmentation of the college landscape, the emergence of the student loan debt crisis, and the polarization of politics along educational lines have coincided with another macro trend: the decline of worker power. For much of the twentieth century, labor unions pushed up the wages and welfare of blue-collar workers in exurban and rural areas, ensuring that workers without college degrees earned enough to support families and keep up with inflation. The precipitous decline in union density that began in the second half of the century and the rise in offshoring that occurred during the same period combined to pull the rug out from under these parts of the country, leaving workers in these places with few gainful opportunities. This economic shift left a college degree as the only ticket out of the doldrums, and it’s no coincidence that Democrats have struggled in the same states where union power has all but vanished.

Bunch and the myriad other pundits who share his views are right to point to educational polarization as a threat to the future of the United States, given that the Republican surge among less educated voters now threatens to empower the country’s most vicious conservative elements for a very long time. To focus one’s attention on the crisis in college affordability, after all, is to avert one’s eyes from the root cause of this polarization, and to ignore the best opportunity to level the economic playing field. If you really want to heal national divisions, as Bunch does, you can’t just make college more affordable and more accessible. You also have to make life viable for people who don’t or won’t go to college. That fight begins not in the lecture hall but at the bargaining table.