How Not to Woo Conservative Students

They’re not doing it because they’re committed to political diversity. They’re not doing it because of right-wing political pressure. Rather, some left-leaning colleges are trying to attract conservative students simply to keep the lights on. But one school, at least, is going about it the wrong way.


What do conservative young people want out of college? Not fiddles and compost.

Your humble editor has attracted some flak for arguing in the past that mainstream colleges should be more welcoming to conservative students. Yet in the aftermath of Trump’s surprise electoral victory, some colleges are feeling a new pressure to widen their pool of prospective students. Not because it would improve the intellectual climate on campus, and not because it would be fair to conservative students, but rather mainly to keep tuition dollars rolling in.

Recently, Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed investigated one such recruiting program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. The school is famously liberal and its president worries that conservative students and parents have been frightened off. In an effort to appear more welcoming, Warren Wilson has begun emphasizing two things that it thinks will appeal to conservative families.

They won’t. And the school’s decision to focus on them shows how woefully ignorant many of us progressives are when it comes to understanding conservatism.

Warren Wilson’s first mistake is to think that emphasizing its program in traditional music will attract conservative students. The school’s leaders think that conservative students might not know that Warren Wilson has long nurtured the study of traditional Appalachian music, including fiddling, clogging, and bluegrass.

Second, Warren Wilson is telling potential students more about its farm. The agriculture program has maintained a large farm dedicated to sustainable practices and environmentally friendly husbandry.

Really??? Can the presumably intelligent leaders of Warren Wilson College really believe that conservative families in 2017 are mainly interested in maintaining traditional fiddle music and sustainable agriculture?

It would be harder to blame such dunderheaded misreadings of American culture if there weren’t so many easy ways for school leaders to educate themselves. They wouldn’t have to read academic books such as my history of twentieth century educational conservatism or my new book about one conservative tradition in American higher education. They could, instead, look to things like conservative college guides themselves.

What do conservative students and their families want out of college? Not studies of Appalachian traditional culture or sustainable environmentalism. Such things have long been associated with political and cultural progressivism. Rather, conservative families are looking for colleges that are dedicated to a different approach to teaching, learning, and campus life.

The conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, for example, has published a guide to conservative-friendly higher education. What are conservatives worried about? Not a lack of focus on sustainable environmentalism or traditional dancing. Rather, as they put it in their recent edition, conservatives worry about the climate at many colleges, at which

teachers or administrators try to bully or indoctrinate students into towing a narrow, ‘politically correct’ line on intellectual, moral, and religious issues.

Moreover, conservatives want schools that discourage the “party culture” of many mainstream schools. They want their kids to learn about truth, goodness, and beauty. And they want their kids to be well prepared for white-collar jobs. But they don’t want left-leaning ideas shoved down their kids’ throats. And they don’t want their kids lured by the siren songs of booze and “hook-up” culture.

What should conservative students do? Find schools that still study the intellectual tradition of Western Europe, focusing on the contributions of “great works.” Watch out for elaborate but meaningless academic noodling. Beware especially of academic departments that have a record of actively discouraging conservative thinking. And run away from schools that have actively encouraged immoral behavior among their student bodies.

Will Warren Wilson’s new recruiting efforts attract these sorts of conservative college shoppers? Not a chance.

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  1. ISI represents American conservative family opinions about higher education? LOL.

    There are tons of different college guides, and most of them (like ISI’s) are attempts to shape what parents and students want. They don’t reflect actual popular conservative opinion as much as they try to create it in their own image. Cultural conservatives, libertarians, and religious conservatives all spin their own version of stories that ultimately favor the institutions the guide publishers favor. US News and World Reports’ annual rankings are far, far more influential and of much, much greater concern than an ISI guide or a review in a church magazine. Nobody really wants to be a niche or a hidden gem; they want mainstream, national attention and prestige.

    ISI has had college guides since at least the 80s or 90s when it began the attack on “Political Correctness” via networks of conservative campus newspapers. It has been a central intellectual institution of the “paleoconservative” right since Buckley founded it in 1953 with support from the Catholic, German-American Regnery family. The other pillars of Buckley’s conservative movement “fusionism” — the Evangelicals and Libertarians — are quite distinct constituencies — especially the Evangelicals. Colleges like Hillsdale and Grove City have unique histories where these constituencies overlap — and clash. Normally they stay quite separate, because they do not share the same values and ideas about “conservatism.”

    The Regnerys worked their way into the billionaire class via conservative media after a slow start in the 50s with their founder’s driving passion: the injustice of the Nuremburg trials and the liberal (crypto-Marxist and Jewish) internationalism behind it. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale put Regnery on the map and boosted the Right’s post-war narrative about the treason of secular left-leaning intellectuals to a wide audience.

    This to illustrate how the accent at ISI has always been more on Man than God in the Evangelical sense, or an idea of Christian culture that leans away from Benda toward Maurras, Evola, and de Maistre via the seemingly benign Chesterton, Belloc, Dawson, Eliot, Kirk, etc. While there is much overlap, crossover, and there are plenty of individual alliances with Evangelicals, there is also an abiding foreignness to ISI on the right. It was never able to be mainstream the way Buckley’s neoconservative front was, because ISI is about defending an identity and disposition toward “the West” — an identity that is too tied to holocaust-compromised European Catholic cultures and nationalist identities for many Americans, especially if they are happily Evangelical or Jewish. (A lot of this simply has to do with who you could get to tolerate each other in the same room in Manhattan in the past century and even still today.) The disaffected however are another story. They have an ecumenical capacity that is all their own.

    Today one of the Regnery scions is the main patron of Richard Spencer and the alt-right’s founding institutions; a lot of their intellectual groundwork was done arm in arm with Paul Gottfried, who was for many decades a frequent speaker and writer in ISI venues. That doesn’t make ISI alt-right, but it has played the incubator and basis for the emergence of this new iteration of white nationalism and Christian cultural supremacism. It is also ascendent and winning what everyone on the old nationalist right always wanted — an end to the post-war liberal internationalist metanarrative.

    You could just talk to conservatives to understand this stuff better. Warren Wilson’s leaders don’t have to go far out of Asheville to find conservatives; they live there too. Nearby Montreat College is conservative and Christian, but they’re in even worse shape financially. North Carolina is rich in private and public higher education. There just may not be enough students, and that will make the less prestigious niche players suffer. It’s not as if all conservatives avoid elite institutions. The dangers you list off are considered worth it for those who can get into an elite school, or if the financial aid is really compelling.

  2. “Conservative college shoppers.”

    I think “shoppers” is the correct term to use, and is sometimes overlooked as a factor in what colleges people choose. People tend to be very intentional about how to spend their money. Some will only buy a Kenmore appliance, and some will only purchase a Whirlpool. With charities, people are only going to give money to the ones they believe in, and they wouldn’t give a cent to the ones they don’t. People can be picky about small ticket items too, like Jif vs. Skippy.

    With a college choice it’s not about peanut butter, appliances, or charities. We’re talking mostly a 6 figure investment. For the majority of people, that is a daunting amount of money. I have heard people say they would not give that amount of money to a secular college. The other reasons you have mentioned on your blog certainly relate, but for some, money is THE primary factor.

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