New study uncovers the silent bias in our vocabulary

This is something likely many of us knew intuitively. But now the Gallup people have done some polling research and come up with an interesting discovery.

We’re coming up on that time of year when both “colleges and universities” and “higher education” will be sending out their letters of acceptance to next fall’s freshman classes. Forget for a moment — okay, no one really can — the outrageous costs of these post-secondary educational institutions.

Turns out, Americans have much different feelings about “colleges and universities” than they do about “higher education.” They may seem identical to most, but they’re definitely not in the minds of many, probably in your mind too when you really think about it.

Over recent years a certain stigma has become attached to “colleges and universities” as high-cost centers of pampered young people who need safe zones to protect themselves from life’s realities, snowflakes inculcated with liberal ideologies who think government should be involved much more deeply in average lives. Scratch one of them and find a voter for Bernie Sanders, who’s four times older.

Institutions providing “higher education,” however, have earned a significantly higher level of confidence. (No, not in the marijuana sense.)

In Gallup’s recent survey of 1,100 adults, fully 82 percent had “Some” to a “Great Deal” of confidence in “Higher Education.” Only 55 percent had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in “colleges and universities.”

“Community colleges” and “post-secondary education” fell pretty much in the middle.

And like pretty much everything in these United States these days, attitudes toward colleges and higher education are colored by politics. Republicans have far less confidence in “higher education” (26 percent “great deal of confidence”) than Democrats (50 percent).

For “colleges and universities” the political chasm is even wider — only 12 percent have a great deal of confidence among Republicans and 37 percent among Democrats.

Slicing it even thinner, conservative Republicans are three times more likely to have a great deal of confidence in institutions of higher education (23 percent) than colleges and universities (8 percent). Gallup reported:

Although liberal Democrats express more confidence in response to both terms, they too are more confident in higher education than in colleges and universities.

Gallup’s results reinforce findings of a Pew Research Center survey last July that 58 percent of Republicans feel colleges and universities have a negative effect on national life, while just 36 percent see them as positive. In 2015, a similar study found opposite results for GOP voters — 54 percent positive, 37 percent negative.

By contrast, a substantial majority (72 percent) of Democrats see colleges and universities as having a positive effect.

In this election year and beyond to 2020, savvy politicians — or, more likely, their speechwriters — will pay close attention to such latent linguistic bias, even as they shift over time, to ensure their speaking vocabularies push the correct buttons in the minds of voters.