NEW YORK - America's colleges are harming the country, the majority of Republicans now say. It's a strong downward slide in public opinion that, some experts fear, could exacerbate growing divides among Americans and lead to higher levels of student debt.
The conclusion, from a report this week by the Pew Research Center in Washington, based on a June survey of 2,504 adults, reflects a reversal from just two years ago, when 54 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning Americans said colleges and universities had a positive impact on the way things were going in the country. Now, 58 percent say the opposite: that higher education institutions are having a negative impact on the U.S. In 2015, only 37 percent of Republicans said that.
It's first time a majority of Republicans has said colleges are hurting the U.S. since Pew began asking the question in 2010. Just 36 percent of Republicans say colleges are benefiting the country.
These findings come as protests and free-speech debates have been roiling campuses nationwide over the past few years, sparking criticism from Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump, who earlier this year threatened to strip one university of its federal funding.
Donald Moynihan, a professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he worries that Republican-dominated legislatures could act on their low regard for public colleges and universities by slashing their funding, resulting in tuition increases that would swell levels of student debt already at record levels.
The nation's roughly 7,000 colleges rely on elected officials at all levels of government for assorted subsidies, loans, grants and preferential tax treatment that allow some of them to amass billion-dollar endowments while their students borrow to make ends meet. Republicans control most state legislatures, governorships, both houses of Congress and the White House, though Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has focused much of her first five months in office on making life easier for the nation's colleges by eliminating "burdensome" rules developed by the Obama administration.
Pew spokeswoman Bridget Johnson said the report's authors couldn't speculate on why Republicans' views had shifted so dramatically in just two years. But Moynihan pointed to a steady diet of headlines making hay of controversies such as protests against campus speakers. "This is a consequence of cultural and political messaging," he said.
The negative sentiment among Republicans is widely shared across various income, education and age groups _ even 63 percent of Republican bachelor's degree holders say colleges are having an adverse impact _ with just three exceptions: Fewer than half of Republicans aged 18 to 29, those whose family income is less than $30,000, and those who identify as moderate or liberal members of the GOP felt that higher education institutions are damaging the country. The report was published Monday.
"There's no way to sugarcoat it. It's just very disappointing and worrisome," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the Washington-based American Council on Education, a higher education trade group.
In contrast to Republicans, the vast majority of Democrats say colleges are helping the U.S. The share of Democrats who have a favorable view of colleges, 72 percent, has increased from 65 percent in 2010. Fewer than one in five Democrats, or 19 percent, have a negative view of colleges and universities.
But even that bright spot masks challenges facing the nation's colleges. Years of tuition hikes, dismal graduation rates, skyrocketing student debt and slow wage increases for graduates have generated persistent questions about the value of college.
"Forget about Republicans versus Democrats: It's a growing backlash against higher education," said Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, the polling organization.
The partisan divide on colleges also reflects increasing polarization in America, experts said, where members of the two main political parties often have starkly different views on everything from climate change to how far apart they want to live from their neighbors. That probably won't change anytime soon, said Hartle, the higher education sector lobbyist.
As a result, Busteed warned, Republicans could increasingly choose to attend schools that are perceived as Republican, creating a cycle that will lead only to greater levels of polarization, as conservatives and liberals segregate themselves from Americans with different political leanings.
"We've always thought of higher education as the place to broaden your horizons and interact with folks from different backgrounds. If college can't be that place, then where else?" asked Busteed.
Colleges are now viewed so unfavorably on the right that more Republicans say banks are having a positive impact on the country than are colleges, a first since at least 2010. "It makes for depressing reading," Moynihan said.
By Polly Mosendz and Shahien Nasiripour / Bloomberg News