Appealing to Both Sides of the Political Divide in Education

Partisan divides and polarization are dominant themes in public discourse, and higher education is not immune. Opinions about higher education vary between Democrats and Republicans, just as in other domains of life. College admissions professionals can help make higher education a welcoming environment for people across the political spectrum. This will benefit the students and give schools a wider pool of potential applicants.

When you combine the projected 10-15% drop in the number of new high school graduates in 2025—also called the enrollment cliff—with the rising negative opinions about higher education, enrollment departments face a growing challenge. Yet the digital marketing tools available today make it possible to reach different groups of students with appropriate messaging, opening the possibility of appealing more directly to students at various places on the political spectrum—and their parents. Instigating communications with enrollment targets of different stripes can help you to bring all sorts of students to your campus.

Political polarization affects students on campus, with many stating that they don’t want to talk to those who have views at odds with their own beliefs. Yet colleges and universities are places where discussions of issues should thrive, where young people are opening their minds to new ideas, and respectful debate should be central.

Though there are differences of opinion, it is essential to remember that most people are not at either extreme but somewhere in the middle. Higher education institutions can still strive to appeal to students of all political stripes. Let’s explore how perceptions of higher education differ between people of different political leanings and how we can better make a case for inclusive and harmonious—yet lively—campus environments.

The Value of Higher Education

A 2022 survey by New America found respondents differed along party lines about the value of a college education. The good news is that most people believe—rightly so, if you follow the statistics—that higher education is a good investment. Yet the fact that Republicans feel this less strongly may mean that your arguments to support the value of your school need to be clearer to attract students and families that identify as Republican.

There is robust data to support the earning power of more education. For example, here are recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:



Despite statistics on how much more money a graduate of your university can earn, everyone has heard sad stories of students who racked up a lot of debt and then did not find a job or a job that paid well. Here is where marketing personalization can make a huge difference. As you communicate with prospects to discover their hopes and dreams, give them real examples and statistics that relate to the major or profession they are considering. If they don’t know what they want to do—and let’s face it, many young people don’t yet have a plan—give them some scenarios that can help them to consider how they could figure out what they want to do during their time in college.

For example, if you have a student who likes history but doesn’t know where that could lead, show them some of the courses in the program. Identify turning points where the student might find that their interest could veer off towards law, teaching, economics, or any one of many professions where it pays to know history. Give the student information on the types of counseling and internships that can help them become more job ready as they progress towards graduation. Connect them with alumni who are willing to talk to prospects about their experience at your university.

The Impact of Higher Education on Society

Views on whether higher education has a positive or negative impact on the U.S. have changed over the past decade, with Republicans switching from finding higher ed a more positive force to the majority now stating that it has a negative effect. Of course, this is a broad sentiment about the whole of higher ed, not a particular institution. But when you are marketing your university, understanding the background sentiment about colleges can help you shape your message to best demonstrate that your institution aims to positively influence society.

When gauging opinions about higher education, it is valuable to remember that while more Republicans feel that overall, higher education has a negative influence, they still will likely support the idea that college can help an individual student have a better life and more lucrative career. Conversations with parents and students can go a long way in dispelling fears about college by asking questions and answering lingering concerns for prospects.

Perceptions of Bias on Campus

Conservative voices continue to spread the idea that colleges and universities are full of liberal professors who will try to indoctrinate students into their political camp. Yet only 10% of students report feeling pressure to conform to professors’ ideas, and liberal students were likelier to say that they felt pressure from conservative professors than vice versa. College is a time when students should explore new ideas, become open to a broad range of views on different subjects, and professors must respect the diversity of opinions in the student body.

Professors who identify as liberal indeed outnumber those who say they are conservative. Yet 46% of professors—the largest segment—identify as close to the middle of the road. Even though our society seems more polarized than ever, it may be just that the loudest voices are those at the extreme ends of the political spectrum. Most of the population is somewhere in the vast chasm between polar opposites.

Whether your school identifies as a liberal arts or conservative Christian institution, attracting students from varied backgrounds and perspectives is beneficial. For example, a Christian school can benefit from students who don’t identify strongly with the religious and conservative views of the denomination yet are open to the curriculum and academic community on campus. This openness is true for liberal arts institutions, where robust debate from all sides can be encouraged. Students’ differences in culture and beliefs can be points of acceptance and learning.

There is no denying that college can be a time when young people may change how they view the world, which can be uncomfortable for many parents. Folk wisdom has it that people become more conservative as they age, yet studies have found that political leanings remain very stable over people’s lifetimes. College students may try on different ideas and ideologies as they form an identity separate from their parents, and this is a cause of strain in many families. College marketers need to be mindful of the parental anxieties that underlie some of these realities and especially sensitive to respecting the diversity of prospective students’ political, religious, and cultural beliefs.

The Upshot

It can be tricky to navigate the divisive waters of political discourse, and higher education marketers would be wise to tread carefully. The best route is to answer concerns from prospective students while emphasizing the lasting benefits that education can provide. Colleges should be welcoming places for young people to develop their ideas along with their skills and knowledge. Offering a welcoming atmosphere for diverse perspectives among incoming students strengthens your educational mission while supporting healthy enrollment numbers.

Contact us today to find out how we can help your institution level up its digital marketing strategy.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you adapt to the evolving education marketing landscape and ramp up your efforts, please contact us today.

Parent & Student Survey Whitepaper


The Annual PARENT & Student Survey

Advance Education conducted a nationwide survey to learn what students and their parents are looking for from institutions – and the right marketing channels to reach them.

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