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.

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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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Where Can a Conservative Safely Go to College?

What is a parent to do? There are a million college guides out there. How can we tell what school is right for our kid(s)? Most parents and students are concerned with things such as party culture, cost, programs, and prestige. For some students, though, a school’s friendliness to conservatism might be a primary consideration. For those folks, the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute has published its latest guide to colleges and universities.

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The RIGHT schools…

We all know that college rankings are a scam. Publishers prey on families’ anxieties to offer a dog’s breakfast of ranking systems. Depending on how schools are evaluated, we can come up with wildly varying scales.

I can say this in full confidence, since my beloved Binghamton University usually comes out near the top. In the recent Kiplinger’s ranking, for instance, we came out 22nd among public universities, 16th for out-of-state students. That puts us far above bigger schools such as Colorado (90), Iowa (55), and Michigan State (40), Alabama (46), Texas A&M (35), and Illinois (26). More important, I’m pretty sure our never-defeated football team could utterly crush the squads from any of those other schools.

But what does that ranking mean? In the Kiplinger’s system, factors such as cost, average completion rate, average student debt load, and other financial factors dominate. Is that really what people care most about when it comes to picking an institution of higher education?

For students and families with more specific questions, everybody and their brother have published niche guides to colleges. For the young-earth creationists out there, Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis has maintained a handy guide to schools that will not challenge creationist faith.

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Can college make a difference?

At Heterodox Academy, Joshua Dunn has reviewed the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s guide to conservative colleges. As Dunn relates, ISI has been the voice of “movement” conservatism on America’s campuses for generations. For its college survey, ISI looked at 148 schools. As Dunn explains,

To measure the academic seriousness of an institution, ISI examined the faculty and course offerings in three departments, English, History, and Political Science. In English, it looked for that classes focusing on great authors in the western literary tradition but without an emphasis on trendy and politicized literary theories.  “Avoid,” ISI urges, “classes that mention ‘race,’ ‘class,’ or ‘gender.’” In short, study Chaucer and Shakespeare but leave the “fecopoetics” and deconstructionism behind. History departments should require classes that cover more than post-1965 American protest movements. And Political Science departments should require courses in classical political philosophy and the U.S. Constitution. If a department’s course offerings are skewed toward “Marxist meta-analysis of postcolonial Asia,” students should look elsewhere.

The ISI guide gives schools a “green light,” “yellow light,” or “red light” rating. Many elite schools, such as Amherst, Duke, and Oberlin, are no-gos for conservative students. The ISI system, however, produces some surprises. Schools such as Wheaton College—one of the evangelical schools I’m writing about these days—come out with only a “yellow light” ranking, in spite of the fact that their faculty all agree to an evangelical statement of faith. On the other hand, riotously pluralist schools like my own beloved Binghamton University get a green light, in spite of the fact that we welcome many avowedly leftist professors to our campus.

What is a conservative student to do? I’m torn. On the one hand, I’m deeply sympathetic to all students—even conservative students—who are made to feel out-of-place or unwelcome in their schools. On the other hand, as I’ve argued in these pages and in my recent book about conservative activism in education, much of the conservative angst about the state of higher education is woefully misleading.

It can be very difficult to look past authoritative-sounding college guidebooks. What student does not want to go to a top-ranked school? But all students, whatever their ideological or religious backgrounds, should rely on more than a book to choose a college. Talk to people you know who have gone there. Visit the campus. Ask difficult questions of admissions officers. Read the student newspapers.

In the end, relying on a college guide to choose the best school is about as useful as relying on a sandwich guide to help you choose the best lunch.