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Why Are Highly Educated Americans Getting More Liberal?

Chances are that this crowd is more liberal than conservative.
Paul Marotta
Getty Images Entertainment
Chances are that this crowd is more liberal than conservative.

It's a well-worn (if not-entirely-agreed-upon) idea that college makes people more liberal. But a new report adds a twist to this: the most educated Americans have grown increasingly liberal over the last couple of decades.

A report from the Pew Research Center finds a wide partisan gap between highly educated and non-highly-educated Americans. Not only that, but the share of college grads and post-graduates who are "consistently liberal" (based on their answers to a series of policy questions) has grown sharply in the last 20 years.

In 1994, 7 percent of post-grads were "consistently liberal," and 1 percent of people with high school educations or less were — not much of a difference. Today, the gap is 25 points wide — 31 percent of people with post-grad educations are consistently liberal, compared to 5 percent of those with high school educations or less.

The same kind of change just hasn't happened on the conservative side.

Split it out by party, and the shift is even starker. Among the post-grad set, more than half of Democrats and Democratic-leaners today are "consistently liberal," up from fewer than one-in-five in 1994. Likewise, among college grads, it jumped from 12 to 47.

This squares with something Pew found last year: while the partisan identification of people without college degrees have held steady over the last couple of decades, people with college degrees increasingly identify as Democratic or lean that way.

Why the leftward shift?

As noted above, the idea that education would make a person more liberal is nothing new. And to some degree, that appears true.

"There's some pretty good evidence that going to college leads people to have more liberal attitudes on social issues, in particular on issues of tolerance, of difference and issues of gender equity," said Neil Gross, sociology professor at Colby College, who has studied liberalism at colleges.

But then, Gross has also written about evidence that college really doesn't move people's broader political beliefs (about, for example, the size of government) that much.

There are all sorts of reasons why this might be happening. Here are three factors that may be contributing:

1) General polarization

The whole nation is becoming more ideologically polarized, Pew has found. And lots of reasons have been proposed for why that polarization may have happened: distrust in government, the racial and religious politics of the 1960s and 70s, even income inequality. So it would make sense that these postgrads and college grads (along with lots of other people) moved farther away from the center.

In addition, to some degree, that second chart shows that Democrat-leaning and Democratic highly educated people were somewhat more likely to be consistently liberal in 1994. According to Gross, if highly educated people are (for a variety of reasons) simply more predisposed to being ideologically consistent (or more accurately here, more consistently liberal), that may mean they were particularly affected by the forces of polarization over the last 20 years.

"We've known for a while that people with more education tend to be more ideologically consistent than people with less education," he said. "In some sense it's not surprising to see that polarization and party sorting is happening most among people who are super highly educated."

2) Women

Another possibility, Gross says, might be the growing numbers of women getting college and advanced degrees. Women also in general tend to vote for Democrats more than men. So as the population of highly educated people grew more female, that may have swung it left.

3) Insularity

At work here is the Big Sort: the idea (popularized in the 2008 book by Bill Bishop) that Americans are increasingly living alongside like-minded people — essentially, that the walls of our respective ideological bubbles are getting thicker. Gross proposes that this may be happening especially among the post-grad set.

"Americans are increasingly clustering into cities and neighborhoods with people who are like them politically," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if part of what's going on has to be people with graduate degrees being drawn toward cities where lots of highly educated people work."

In other words, as the highly educated Americans in particular seek out jobs that use their highly educated skill sets, it ends up sorting them into more homogeneous communities.

And it's easy to see how that could be more polarizing: if all your friends are have lawn signs for Democratic candidates and consuming news from more partisan sources, you might easily get pulled further left (and the same goes for conservatives).

Conservatives have shifted, too

It's not that conservatives haven't grown more conservative over the years, in Pew's estimation; according to their data, both sides have polarized. It's just that conservatives don't have this kind of education-related pattern.

(And to be clear, not all political scientists agree that the electorate is all that ideologically polarized. Some say it's more that affective polarization has grown — put simply, that each side increasingly dislikes the other.)

So if ideological polarization is real, where is conservatives' rightward shift showing up? According to Pew, age is one big area. Republican and GOP-leaning Baby Boomers and Generation Xers (and, to a lesser extent, members of the "Silent Generation" — people born between 1928 and 1945 here) have shifted rightward since the 1990s, Pew found.

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Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.