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Opinion | What College Applicants Really Think About Republicans’ Campus Panic

The moral panic about “woke” campuses has metastasized into actual legislation, and not just in the swampy idylls of Florida. Last week the governor of Alabama signed a bill that purports to limit the teaching of “divisive” topics in its colleges and universities. The bill is similar to Florida’s ban on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in public colleges, which was signed into law last May. Both are all-out attacks on learning by excommunicating liberal ideas from the classroom. Other state legislatures have also been busy. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Republican lawmakers have proposed 81 anti-D.E.I. bills across 28 states. (So far, 33 haven’t become law, and 11 have.)

Because most students attend public universities, state-level threats to higher education are especially troubling. While the federal government has outsize authority, states have more direct political reach. Republican leaders in the most reactionary states are banking that their appeals to moral panics about teaching history, race, gender and identity will attract donors and political favor. Bills already passed in Florida and Alabama are examples of shortsighted, counterintuitive legislative overreach. This political theater lifts up a caricature of college, one on which coddled minds are seduced into liberal ideas. Without university leaders, politicians or voters mounting a defense of faculty governance and democratic speech, anti-woke reactionaries can remake college into the very thing they claim it is: cloistered institutions that cannot respond to what their students want and need.

It is hard to combat legislative overreach in states where gerrymandering and the structure of elections favor reactionary Republicans. But unlike in K-12 schools, in higher education, the students hold a tremendous amount of power. Public colleges and universities need students’ tuition dollars. If states become hostile to students’ values, those students could choose to go elsewhere or to forgo college altogether. That would set up a standoff between right-wing political favor and students’ dollars. But first, students would have to be paying attention. They would have to care. And they would have to be willing to choose colleges that match their values.

That is why I read with interest a recent report put out by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup on how policies and laws shape college enrollment. Part of a larger survey about students’ experiences of higher education, the report left me with one major takeaway: The national debate about so-called woke campuses does not reflect what most college students care about. It is worth looking at the report’s key findings. They underscore how unhinged our national debate over higher education has become and how misaligned Republican-led public higher education systems are with the bulk of college students. It isn’t hard to imagine that students could vote with their feet, avoiding schools in states that are out of step with their values.

The report names four reactionary changes in the national policy conversation that might shape students’ feelings about going to or being enrolled in college. First, there’s the group of bills against teaching supposedly divisive concepts, as in Alabama and Florida. Second, there’s a 2022 Supreme Court decision on concealed carry permits for firearms. Students fear that it signals how states with more restrictive gun regulations will change their campus gun policies in anticipation of legal challenges. Third, there are the sweeping changes to the availability of reproductive health care that came after the fall of Roe v. Wade. The Wild West of different abortion bans, legal challenges to Plan B and birth control will shape students’ experiences of college. Finally, there’s the Supreme Court decision in 2023 that effectively ended race-based affirmative action in admissions. States are already broadly interpreting that decision to include scholarships and programming.

If you are applying to college in 2024, you are tasked with not just choosing a major at a college where you can be happy and that may admit you at a price you can afford. You are also considering if you will be safe from gun violence, able to get medical care if you need it, qualified to use some types of financial aid and likely to encounter a liberal arts education that could improve the trajectory of your life.

I read the report closely for takeaways and what some of the fine-grained data points mean. The big context is that most students still choose colleges based on quality, cost, reputation and job prospects. Because I am interested in which of the four reactionary changes matter most (and to whom), I pulled those out of the list of all things that matter to students. Students care about — from most to least important — gun violence, “anti-woke” laws and reproductive health care. Because race-based affirmative action is measured somewhat differently from the other concerns, it is not ranked.

I lived through a campus shooting last year. As I watched college students climb calmly out of windows to escape the building, I realized this is a generation raised on constant shooting drills. That might explain why 38 percent of students who study on campus said they were worried about gun violence at their schools. Campus gun policies mattered at least somewhat to 80 percent of those surveyed. And of those who cared, students who wanted more restrictive gun policies outweighed those who preferred looser policies by five to one, according to the report.

As for those “divisive” concepts? Students want them. A majority of students who cared about those issues, the report notes, said they did not want restrictions on classroom instruction. Even more notable, students’ opinions do not align with the rabid political partisanship that dominates headlines. In a look at the students who care about this issue, some political differences might be expected. And there are some. But the good news is that they aren’t nearly as partisan as one might imagine. Even 61 percent of Republicans who cared about this issue when choosing a college preferred a state that did not restrict instruction on topics related to race and gender. That’s compared with 83 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of independents.

It is remarkable, given these data points, how little politicians and the public are talking about how afraid college students are — not of new ideas but of being shot on campus.

Fears about reproductive health ranked third among these changes; 71 percent of those surveyed said that a state’s reproductive health care policies would influence where they chose to go to college. The gender split here was a mixed bag. While many men cared about reproductive health, women were, by 18 percentage points, more likely than men to prefer states with fewer restrictions on reproductive health care. It is impossible to claim causation, but hackneyed culture wars about gender are not happening in a vacuum. They animate men’s and women’s values. The data suggests that it will be hard to recruit men (who are inclined to want more health care restrictions for women) and make female students feel cared for and safe. There may not be a way for a single college to serve both masters.

The Supreme Court affirmative action decision’s role in shaping students’ college choices is harder to parse than the other reactionary changes. People do not have a common understanding of what affirmative action means or how it works. Even so, 45 percent of those surveyed said the ruling would shape their decision of which school to attend or if they went to college at all.

While the idea of woke campuses may get attention and motivate parts of the reactionary Republican base, the report says that those partisan differences are moderate among students. “Most current and prospective students of all political parties who say these issues are important to their enrollment,” the report notes, “prefer more restrictive gun policies, less restrictive reproductive health care laws and fewer regulations” on curriculums.

Put more simply: Republicans must seem like aliens — if not dinosaurs — to the very college students they claim to be saving from hostile college campuses.

Debates about what happens on college campuses are proxies for partisan politics. They are also convenient ruses for clawing back the nominal democratization that higher education underwent during the last half of the 20th century. Those of us who see education as something more noble than a political football should care about the way partisan attacks and sensational headlines will harm real people trying to make sense of their lives.

Students go to college because they want jobs, they want to be educated or they want to be respected by others (or some combination of all three). A college or university implicitly promises them that it has the legitimacy to allow access, foster learning and confer status. The trick is that when universities play into the con game of moral panics about woke campuses, they become the thing we fear.

The loudest story about American colleges is disconnected from what college students care about. Even so, the nation’s diverse, aspirational college students are trying to make college choices that align with their political values. According to this survey, they are remarkably progressive, fair-minded and unafraid of intellectual challenge. If only our politics lived up to their values.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) became a New York Times Opinion columnist in 2022. She is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, School of Information and Library Science; the author of “Thick: And Other Essays”; and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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