The idea that left-wing college professors are both brainwashing undergraduates and discriminating against conservative students has emerged as one of the most consistent right-wing lines of attack against American higher education over the last few decades. While conservative undergrads, like many types of students, may often feel isolated, a new working paper led by a public policy professor who tells me he's a "lifelong Republican" suggests that any evidence for bias in grading against conservative students is at best minimal and most likely absent.
Matthew Woessner, associate professor of political science and public policy at Pennsylvania State University–Harrisburg, has been working with various colleagues on questions related to political identity and higher education for years. In his most recent paper, he collaborated with Amanda Thompson and Robert Maranto to analyze data produced by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California–Los Angeles. The data, Woessner says, comes from students who are surveyed during both their first year and fourth years. The students report their political identification, and also answer questions about policy issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and the threat of racism. The authors correlated students' self-reported high-school grade point averages (GPAs), their first-year college outcomes, and their fourth-year college outcomes, to the students' political views. The findings: Ideological variables are not strong predictors of grades, albeit with a few fascinating caveats.
Woessner tells me that, when he first went into this field of research, "I came at this expecting to find evidence of discrimination, but the data didn't support it." Now, years later, having published a book and over a dozen articles on the topic, he concludes that college campuses, "are not a hotbed of ideological discrimination. There are challenges for any minority in the academy, and that includes political minorities and racial minorities," Woessner says, and those challenges can lead some conservative students to "lay low." But there's just no evidence that college professors—who do indeed trend liberal in many departments—routinely discriminate against conservative students.
Though this broader finding is important, Woessner's latest work has suggested some narrow correlations between ideology and grades that are worth considering. Students opposed to legalized abortion, for example, enter college with narrowly higher GPAs than pro-choice students, but lose most of that advantage over four years. Is this a sign that professors are discriminating against right-wing students? Probably not, according to the study: The authors argue that high school may play more to the strengths of conservative students, who often prefer a straightforward, right-or-wrong assessment style. Liberal students, the authors conjecture, fare better in the qualitative work prioritized in higher education, especially in the humanities. Over the phone, Woessner stresses that, in the end, he and his co-authors had "to engage in speculation, trying to map our possible explanation ranging from discrimination to skills to interests. [Conservative students] may be not as engaged" when it comes to the humanities, whereas "liberal students are much less happy with their math classes."
Meanwhile, right-wing media outlets with a perennial grudge against professors have made the curious choice to report on this study as evidence of professorial bias. These reporters must not have read to the end of the paper, where the authors write: "[Our] results do not paint a picture of conservative students under siege. They remain largely satisfied with their college education, and perform nearly as well as, if not better than, their liberal counterparts." And that's just as it should be.
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