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.

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