“Nation’s Splinters Vow to Extract Themselves.” So might last week’s New York Times headline have read, if the relevant editor had been in a metaphoric mood. That the actual title of UNC–Chapel Hill professor Tressie McMillan Cottom’s diatribe was somber rather than celebratory (“Who Would Want to Go to a College Like This?”) shouldn’t obscure the point. McMillan Cottom’s dire warning should be the cause of conservative rejoicing.

The article’s argument is straightforward. In the wake of state-level bans on campus “diversity, equity, and inclusion” initiatives, left-leaning undergraduates “could choose to go [to school] elsewhere or to forgo college altogether.” A March Inside Higher Ed explainer struck a similar note, asserting that “choosing what college to attend is becoming . . . a political referendum” for young Americans.

Both the Cottom and Inside Higher Ed article cite a recent Gallup–Lumina Foundation survey showing that 70 percent to 80 percent of prospective college students will take progressive ideology into account when deciding “whether to enroll or remain enrolled in a [university] program.” If the data are believable, potential undergraduates are concerned about more than just the anti-DEI reforms enacted by Florida, Texas, Alabama, and other states. They also worry about permissive gun regulations, abortion rights, and the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision striking down race-based admissions policies. Universities in conservative locales could be staring at serious enrollment shortfalls as “otherwise-interested students opt to pursue their degrees in a neighboring state.”

But is the Gallup–Lumina survey reliable? We have reason to doubt it, and not only because the nonrandom, web-based sampling employed by the report invites various biases and distortions. Tucked into the survey is the thesis-destroying acknowledgment that “many students do not enjoy the luxury of attending college in any state they choose.” The force of this caveat is only deepened by the fine-print revelation that respondents were between the ages of 18 and 59—not, as one might have expected, 18 and 22. The significance of this disclosure should be obvious. A 20-year-old may flit from state to state on the winds of politics. A collegian in his sixth decade probably can’t, however satisfying it is to tell a pollster otherwise.

Yet even if one takes Gallup-Lumina’s numbers at face value, it is hard to whip oneself into too great a frenzy of despair. Yes, 21 percent of respondents found “extremely important” the question of whether a state restricts abortion, but that figure is dwarfed by the percentage of survey-takers who felt just as strongly about remote-learning options (34), scheduling flexibility (40), and cost (48). Further limiting the report’s utility are questions for which “preference” cuts both ways. Slightly more than three-quarters (76 percent) of respondents considered at least “somewhat important” the matter of whether a college’s state had laws regulating the “teaching” of “divisive topics.” (The survey is curiously silent on laws that regulate DEI offices but leave classroom instruction untouched.) Of the concerned cohort, it is worth noting, 24 percent cared about the subject because they want such restrictions. That figure leaps to 29 percent among respondents whose states have already passed anti-DEI legislation.

In other words, no monolithic progressive backlash against red-state colleges appears in the offing. But let’s once again assume the worst for the sake of argument. Could left-leaning college-goers, voting with their feet, actually harm state university systems in Republican-dominated locales?

At the flagship level, the answer is a clear “no.” The University of Texas at Austin broke application records during the fall 2024 admissions cycle, despite (or because of) a new law requiring public colleges to shut down administrative DEI offices and programs. The University of Florida maintains an acceptance rate of 23 percent. Neither institution is hurting for students. Nor, for that matter, are flagship schools in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia.

As for state university systems’ mid-tier colleges, their struggles have been well documented and predate contemporary reforms. Take, for example, UNC–Greensboro, traditionally the fifth or sixth biggest institution in the UNC system. Since the university’s fall 2019 enrollment peak, student headcount is down more than 12 percent, a figure not unusual among schools in UNC–Greensboro’s class. The culprits, according to state officials and impartial observers, are Covid, demographic shifts, and “a weakening in the perceived value of a college degree.” When, as seems likely, North Carolina joins the list of states that ban campus DEI operations, leftists will try to link preexisting enrollment declines to that move. Don’t fall for it.

Finally, whatever one thinks about these numbers, there is an important philosophical angle. As a conservative in a red state (Tennessee), I want doctrinaire progressives to boycott public universities. How better to rid colleges of the gender quackery, anti-Semitism, and thought-policing that have lately roiled them? Consider, for instance, the foundational question of free speech. As a 2020 study by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression found, a mere 13 percent of “extremely liberal” students reported that it is “never” acceptable to shout down an invited speaker or otherwise prevent his or her address. Only 61 percent of far-left respondents were willing to forswear violence in the service of a cause. Will we really miss these agitators if they fail to show up one fall? Or are we likelier to settle down in peace to the real and oft-neglected business of teaching and learning?

Looked at through this lens, McMillan Cottom’s dire warnings seem more like enticing promises. Conservative reforms and the voluntary dispersal of narrow-minded mobs—what’s not to like?

Photo: Daderot / public domain via Wikimedia Commons


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