Politics in Higher Education: Reaching Low-Income White Conservative Students

6 min read
September 27, 2018

Trump Low Income White Students

There's no surprise that the 2016 presidential election caught many in the academic community off guard.  All the research and analytics pointed toward a sizable victory for Hillary Clinton.  The science failed. That systemic miscalculation ushered in a new era, not just of politics but of complete re-evaluation


How did the polls underestimate the electorate? By missing a viable segment of the population, that President Trump has energized as his base.  These conservative supporters are largely low to middle income white voters.  Many of these voters are less likely to have graduated college and higher education has found itself in the midst of an identity crisis.  This has sparked a national debate as to whether colleges have political orientation and, more specifically, are prone to leaning left.  Admissions counselors are reporting new trends of conservative parents systematically vetoing their children's college selections and options based on the institution's perceived political orientation.  Here are four important steps that colleges can take to win back low-income white conservative students in the age of Trump.

Be a Thought Leader

Regardless of political leanings, age, gender or any other qualifier, most people are now getting their news and information from the internet and social media.  Without reasonable journalistic standards to uphold, visitors lack a viable filter, left to their own devices to determine what to consume and what to disregard.  There is a concern among college leaders about the growing number of articles suggesting that higher education doesn't care about low-income white students.  Fair or unfair, the internet is an accelerant for such rhetoric. 


It's important to be proactive in addressing such concerns directly to a prospective student's family. Historically, institutions of higher learning, especially those with storied tradition, have shied away from content creation using venues such as blogs and discussion boards.  Even social media was frowned upon until recently as a viable source of information dissemination.  However, not just part of the discussion but a thought leader is of tremendous importance.  Here are some helpful tips on how to do so. 

  1. Create a Crisis Management Team.  Even if you don't have an external PR agency, identify those at the college that can help you articulate your message.  Enlist not only staff, but consider deputizing professors and don't forget passionate students with school spirit.  They'll likely be the most influential in your campaign.
  2. Blog.  Your blog(s) should be the foundation for all your online communication.  As the internet has become inundated with repetitious and mindless chatter, well written content stands out and demonstrates your voice as an authority.  As an institution, you have access to incredible research and findings, use it as a way to provide value and educate further.  Become a go-to source for issues related to all different topics that resonate with impressionable minds.   Remember you are building trust as well that may have been eroded by unfair criticisms.  The more you can demonstrate you're welcoming of all opinions, the more you'll build and regain trust .
  3. Create a Content Calendar.  This isn't just about when to publish, but where.  Everyone digital marketer is looking for the precise formula for what time is the best to post and how often.  Don't concern yourself too much with that.  Blogging consistently not only makes your content appointment based, but also adds SEO value that Google will rank with higher authority. 
  4. Have a plan.  It's important not to just schedule a content strategy, but be thoughtful and intentional in what you will publish.  While it's better to be proactive, understand that current events are unpredictable and its important to be flexible enough to respond to and address them through the prism of values and standards of the institution.  Be prepared at all times to create content, should a need to respond or opportunity to further the mission arise.  

Have a Grassroots Strategy

As the changing demographics of America have surpassed a tipping point, higher education has become more intentional about recruiting a more diverse student population.  As many of these desired demographics are not easily reached by traditional advertising, schools have invested in more intensive grassroots outreach and recruitment campaigns to court these students.  It's worked.  By targeting students hyper-locally, they've demonstrated interest and commitment to serving them.  However, the white working-class has been largely ignored by these efforts, the same communities that have been energized by President Trump's messaging.


The Authoritative Guide to Diversity and Inclusion

While most of these efforts have been concentrated in inner-cities, officials at many colleges are beginning to adopt the same practices in rural areas for recruitment of low-income white students.  Some schools are even going so far as to target white conservative students.

Promote Brave Spaces & Safe Spaces

Regardless of where your political leanings lie, one thing that can't be disputed is the heightened volume on political ideology and social beliefs.  This has triggering events of defiance and expression from many different angles.  Digital communication methods like social media have amplified the voices of the previously voiceless, thus making debate far more textured and often violent.  American society isn't just divided, it's fractured. 


While the college campuses has traditionally been a canvas for self-expression  and the free exchange of ideas, this heightened intensity has converted civil conversations into open demonstration as a display of public defiance.This environment has been a cause for concern for some parents as they fear their children's beliefs are in the minority.  Schools have begun designating areas and entire campuses as Safe Spaces free from the threat of the expression of thought and Brave Spaces where students can openly feel free to do so.  If your college has invested in such spaces, it's important to highlight them.  When selecting schools, students of all different backgrounds are evaluating options based on the presence of Brave and/or Safe spaces as much as other factors like sports, academic programs or off-campus housing.  

Double Down On Diversity

While some colleges are now courting low-income and conservative white students, there remains a disparity among Blacks and Latinos attending college at an alarmingly lower rate than their white counterparts.  Economic challenges still exist for these students as a barrier to entry for higher education.  Is it possible to target everyone? The short answer is: not effectively. 

Instead its important to have a culture that's inclusive.  You do this by doubling down on diversity, not just based on race and gender but also based on creed, sexual, political orientation and all differentiators.  This is admittedly very challenging in this culture of intense discourse.  People are unwilling to be open to viewpoints different than their own and thus make snap decisions about entire groups of people based on their belief systems.  Bringing them together, not just to learn academically but from each other's experience and view points, is important.  Higher education is ground zero for this fight for a common ground and it's important that your strategy take the challenge. 


Quick idea for increasing diversity: develop an Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Be Transparent About Debt

In the years since the 2016 election, consumers have become more introspective about purchases.  While college has historically been immune from judgement of credit purchases, the recent increases in tuition cost has created concern over debt, especially among the fiscally conservative community.

Long thought to be a non-negotiable purchase, many fiscally conservative families are pushing back on this belief and bucking trends.  There is cause for alarm.  Both public and private admissions offers believe they are losing potential applicants because of concerns about debt. 


Fiscal Conservatism isn't new of course, however consumers are holding more of a hard-line stance in all of their purchases, including college.  In order to address these concerns, it's important to communicate tuition and pricing as a factor of value.  By doing so, you can justify debt not as a permanent condition, but rather as an investment in future return.  It's important to have your admissions officers well-trained on how to educate students and families on all the grants and scholarship opportunities available to them.  Far too often, students take on unnecessary debt because they didn't explore other avenues first.  

 Diversity and Inclusion on Campus Guide

Get Email Notifications