In 1940, 3.8% of women and 5.5% of men in America earned a four-year college degree. Back then, getting a degree was a big deal. A rarity. Those who could meet that high bar would never have to worry about finding work.
In the 1940s and 50’s, college graduates were generally held in high esteem. In a booming post-war economy, they began to cluster together, often leaving their hometowns in pursuit of career opportunities. In a few select big city churches, most adults were college graduates.
But in small towns and rural areas, only a handful of professionals had seen the inside of a college classroom. Churches in these areas may have boasted a seminary trained pastor, a medical professional or two, and a few school teachers, but the vast majority of parishioners had only a high school education.
Thanks largely to the GI Bill, rates of college graduation rose sharply in America after World War II and have kept rising ever since. In 2020, 38.3% of women and 36.7% of men held a four-year college degree. In the white population, being a college graduate is increasingly correlated with voting Democrat; the non-college educated electorate, by contrast, skews Republican.
This is a fairly recent development. In 1994, 50% of college-educated Americans voted Republican, with only 42% voting Democrat. In 2020, 57% of college-educated voters voted Democrat with only 37% voting Republican. In other words, the Republican share of the college-educated vote has plummeted by 13 percentage points in a single generation while the Democratic share of the college-educate vote has increased by 15 percentage points.
Voters of all genders and ethnicities with postgraduate degrees skewed Democrat by a 61-33 margin.
More urban voters vote Democrat, and more rural voters support Republican candidates, with every new election.
Significantly, we don’t find this educational gap within the non-white electorate. Black and Latino voters tend to vote Democrats, and educational level has little impact.
How do we explain the difference? Why does the experience of attending college have such a major impact on voting patterns within white America when educational level has little impact among voters of color?
Similarly, why are white women more inclined to vote for Democrats than white men?
And why are white voters with high school or less prefer Republicans to Democrats by a 2-1 margin?
I haven’t been able to find any statistics to support my thesis, but my hunch is that exposure to post-modern understandings of history, race and power provide the best explanation.
In 1970, only 20% of doctoral degrees awarded in the humanities went to women; by 2015, it was almost 70%. Women gravitate to education, health and medical sciences, behavioral and social sciences, and the humanities. Men are more inclined to study law, the natural sciences, business and management and engineering.
A massive change in perspective has taken place within the humanities and social sciences since I graduated from university in 1975.
A hermeneutic of suspicion has come into play.
The influence of white supremacy receives ever-deeper scrutiny.
Power relations between white people and people of color, between men and women, between the wealthy and the poor, were all examined in granular detail.
Feminism and racial justice theory have had a steadily growing impact.
During my college years, heterosexual orientation was considered normative while the LGBTQ community was regarded as being somewhat maladaptive and dysfunctional. That prejudice has now been completely abandoned.
Anyone attending a four-year college will be exposed to these changing perspectives to some extent. But students majoring in engineering and business receive a relatively mild dose. This partly explains why college educated men are more conservative than college educated women; they have, for the most part, received very different educations.
In addition, the changes referenced above, have been good news for women and people of color, and bad news for white males.
Americans with little or no exposure to college have little direct exposure to the changing ethos in the American academy. New ideas come to the attention of this slice of America in indirect and piecemeal fashion. They hear Black Lives Matter protesters lamenting white supremacy. They hear feminist leaders critiquing patriarchy. They hear LGBTQ leaders demanding equal justice.
For many white Americans, these messages arrive out of the blue, with little historical or philosophical context. It’s as if the moral world has suddenly flipped on its head.
The Republican Party and white evangelicalism (if the two can be distinguished any longer) have both flourished by providing a safe harbor for these people. So has Fox News.
It is hardly surprising that white people who have been heavily impacted by the humanities and social sciences no longer see the world the same way their non-college educated counterparts see it.
Nor is it surprising that partisans on both sides view the folks on the other side of the fence as un-American. In 2012, for instance, 52% of Republicans held a positive view of higher education; today, only 33% retain that view. This is because colleges and universities are associated with a new and threatening moral ethos.
Some expressions of Christianity have been heavily influenced by the contemporary focus on justice, equality and free expression; other religious constituencies have organized against these new ideas. The flap over critical race theory demonstrates how high the threat level is for white Americans who feel overwhelmed by new ideas.
My thesis also explains why education level has little impact on the way people of color vote. Some Black voters (men in particular), may not be excited about gay marriage or assaults on patriarchy, but emerging ideas about America’s racial history strike them as simple common sense. They don’t need a college degree to understand these things.
Young adults without a college degree often pick up new perspectives through friends and social media. For them, these ideas are in the air. Not so for their parents.
This is not to say that college educated folk are superior to the 62% of Americans without a degree. And I’m certainly not saying that college-educated white people are fully evolved. Much work remains to be done before “liberty and justice for all” becomes a reality among us.
But, as the educated elite clusters in a handful of major cities, the urban-rural cleavage in American life will continue to grow. We shouldn’t abandon our commitment to justice and equity; but we must find creative ways to communicate these ideas to white voters who receive most of their information from evangelical preachers, conservative politicians, and Fox News personalities.
We can do better. We must do better.