Education increases citizens’ political knowledge and participation, with many colleges and universities at the center of political activism. Indeed, many colleges with ties to politics are known for their student activism, such as the University of California Berkeley! Many of the best colleges and universities in the country also consider political science as one of their most popular majors, such as Columbia University and Harvard University.
Five Colleges and Their Ties to the POTUS, Past and Present
With students and their political activism being at the heart and soul of many of the best colleges and universities in the country, it doesn’t come as a surprise then that the present President of the United States (POTUS) and many of his predecessors were great fans of higher education – or in the case of Ronald Reagan, fierce critics. Here are five POTUS whose close ties with specific colleges and universities were significant.
University of Pennsylvania and Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.
Among the best colleges and universities according to the US News and World Report – #7 in this year’s rankings (2022-2023), the University of Pennsylvania is among the most selective, too, with a 6% acceptance rate. Aside from its excellent academics supported by exceptional faculty members, the private Ivy League research university is also known for its notable alumni. Since its founding more than 280 years ago, its alumni have included signers of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and notable figures in politics from the POTUS, Supreme Court justices, senators and congressmen, and governors.
While the 46th and current POTUS in the White House, Joe Biden, isn’t an alumnus, his close association with UPenn is notable for its meaningful impact. President Biden has and continues to share his wide range of experiences with UPenn and its community of students, faculty members and management, and alumni. He’s well-versed in topics ranging from domestic politics and international relations to cancer research and immigration policy – indeed, a vast experience that enriches the UPenn community as much as his interactions with the community enrich his political life and views.
He has always been willing to answer questions thrown at him, pose for pictures on his tours around campus, and be a resource and commencement speaker in the course of his political life. His political motto – All politics are personal – is also notable among the UPenn community because it underlines his call for collaboration and cooperation.
President Biden has also headlined the David and Lyn Silfen University Forums and other notable campus events, as well as the force behind the historic Penn Biden Leaders Dialogues that featured influential leaders.
But it is in the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement that President Biden has the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy at UPenn. Officially opened in 2018, it’s considered UPenn’s home in Washington, D.C., and a venue for collaborative debates and discussions in domestic politics, foreign policy, and international relations. President Biden developed the center during his time as an honorary professor at UPenn, a position he held until 2019.
Hillsdale College and Donald Trump
If you’re looking for Trump University, then Hillsdale College is among the best colleges for it! Located in bucolic Hillsdale, Michigan, the private conservative Christian liberal arts college was established by devout Christian abolitionists in 1844.
Over the years, Hillsdale College was a relative unknown on the national stage of higher education. But things changed when in the late 20th century, it declined federal and state subsidies in funding its operations, including federal student aid. Instead, student tuition is supplemented through private funding sources.
Yet another event that propelled Hillsdale College to national prominence is its close association with Donald Trump, the 45th POTUS and undoubtedly among the most polarizing presidents we’ve ever had. He became the first POTUS without prior political and military service, and his term in office was marked with several controversies.
The Hillsdale College-Trump association started when its then-college president, Larry Arn, expressed his support of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.
The ties have grown stronger during the Trump administration, too, with many Hillsdale alumni filling prominent positions in the White House. The most prominent examples are Betsy DeVos, who was Trump’s chief of staff, and David Morrell, who was an associate counsel to Trump, as well as behind-the-scenes workers like speechwriters. There’s even an exchange of people, so to speak, such as Michael Anton, who became a professor after his stint as Trump’s White House national security spokesman.
But even with Trump out of the White House, his influence is still evident at Hillsdale College! In 2021, it released its 1776 curriculum as part of its support for Trump’s mission of creating what he called “patriotic education.” The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum was inspired by Trump’s then-President’s Advisory 1776 Commission. In 2022, the said curriculum was even gaining ground outside of Michigan, including in South Dakota.
But times may be changing within Hillsdale College itself. In a college survey, nearly 60% of Hillsdale College students, faculty members, and staff said that they prefer Ron DeSantis over Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination.
University of Chicago and Barack Obama
The University of Chicago, a private research school with its main campus in Chicago, Illinois, is known for its elite Law School, where many of the nation’s best political and legal minds have taught. Barack Obama, the 44th POTUS who served two terms in the White House (2009-2017), was among them.
Obama is also closely associated with the University of Chicago due to his time spent as a professor in constitutional law from 1992 to 2004, a 12-year period where he became well-known among students and peers for his intellect. He is, of course, a trailblazer in American politics – he is the first African-American president and the first president born in the Aloha State.
Beyond his trailblazing political life, Obama will likely be remembered in American history as the higher education president. Of course, there will be dissents and demurrals from critics, including leaders in higher education who will point out Obama’s combative, sometimes condescending know-it-all approach in dealing with higher education issues.
But it must also be said that no other POTUS in our history has strongly embraced and promoted higher education as a must for individuals and as vital for the political, social, and economic well-being of the country. His rhetoric matched his executive actions, too, with tens of billions of dollars of new spending that enabled students both the opportunity and the means to secure post-secondary training and education. The American Opportunity Tax Credit, established in 2009, is among these far-reaching reforms in higher education that included federal aid for university research programs.
During his time at the University of Chicago, Obama stood out, too. For one thing, he wasn’t into economic analysis, which was the rage at the Law School then, but into teaching race, gender, and rights – indeed, a strong foundation that served him well during his two-term presidency. For another thing, he turned down offers for a tenured position that many faculty members dream of and he didn’t publish any legal scholarship work, an anomaly among peers that published by the pound.
Indeed, it’s safe to say that Obama started his campaign for the presidency at the University of Chicago’s Law School! He taught students about campaign finance law, a precursor of his uncanny ability to outraise other presidential candidates. He led discussions among students about the fight for racial equality for African-Americans, a precursor to the test that would lead to the first black president of the United States.
In other words, Obama tested his ideas in the classroom and, thus, made the University of Chicago his own research venue and encouraged his students to participate in debates about the pressing issues of the time.
Did you know that the University of Chicago has a dedicated student organization for African-American students? This is the Organization of Black Students.
Texas A&M University and George H.W. Bush
He was neither a native Texan nor a TAMU alumnus, but George H.W. Bush, the 41st POTUS, was proud to be an Aggie! He strongly identified with the values of Texas A&M University – pride, patriotism, family, faith, respect, and loyalty – and he was deeply fond of its cherished Corps of Cadets and military traditions. Even in his death, he was a dearly loved figure – thousands of students waited for the plane carrying his body to fly over the TAMU campus and quietly applauded as it flew away.
Bush’s lasting legacy at TAMU, a public land-grant research university in College Station, Texas, is embodied in two stations at its main campus. First, the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, located on the west campus, houses the personal and official papers of Bush and Dan Quayle, as well as the burial site of Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush.
Second, the Bush School of Government and Public Service, a graduate public policy school, also opened in 1997, based on his political values and politics. Bush considered it his living legacy because he believed that its students and alumni would deliver principled public service and leadership.
The Bush School has four graduate programs – master’s degrees in International Policy, International Affairs, and Public Service and Administration, and an online Executive Master’s in Public Service and Administration. Students can also choose from several graduate certificate programs, as well as from accelerated five-year bachelor-to-master programs.
In 2022, the Bush School also added the Department of Political Science and the International Studies program for undergraduates and Ph.D. students. Undergraduates in the Department of Political Science can choose from the B.A. and B.S. in Political Science programs and the B.A. in International Studies. Students study a wide range of topics in political science, including international relations, political theory, and race and ethnic politics.
Graduate students pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science prepare for successful careers in applied social science and research. Political theory, international relations, public administration, and public policy are among the major fields of study. In this year’s rankings, the Ph.D. in Political Science program was ranked #21 by the U.S. News & World Report due to its internationally acclaimed faculty and rigorous curriculum.
University of California and Ronald Reagan
Not every POTUS in recent history, however, has such favorable relationships with colleges and universities. Ronald Reagan is a notable example of his contentious relationship with the University of California – Berkeley.
Considered among the world’s best universities, with seven of its ten campuses regarded as Public Ivies, the University of California is a land-grant research university system. Of its ten campuses, Berkeley is among the most famous for its significant contributions to research and development in the natural sciences, computer and applied sciences, and business and entrepreneurship. Among these are research projects on atomic and hydrogen bombs, cancer and carcinogens, and the flu vaccine.
But it was also a hotbed of political activism in the 1960s, with its students highly active in protests against compulsory ROTC, social injustices like racial inequality and poverty, and the California House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), among others. The Free Speech Movement, the student protest at UC Berkeley in 1964-1965, was the first 1960s revolt that brought mass civil disobedience to a college campus.
The political activism of its students was the target of strong criticism from then-President Reagan, the 40th POTUS, who called the student protestors radicals. He ran a scorched earth campaign against the university even before his election as Governor of California, even making a vow to clean up “that mess in Berkeley.” Such was his criticism that UC Berkeley became his political foil, where his politics became less about statesmanship and more about bringing down an institution of higher education.
But he didn’t stop with UC Berkeley either! Among his policies as Governor included calling for the end of free tuition in state colleges and universities, demanding significant across-the-board cuts for funding for higher education institutions, and even declaring that the state government shouldn’t support intellectual curiosity. Sadly, these are considered the start of the slow death of public higher education.
Politics and Its Role in Students’ Choice in a College
In provisional data released by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System’s (IPEDS) Fall Enrollment (EF) survey in 2020, the majority of college students attend colleges and universities in their home state. Despite increased mobility and flat rate tuition for in-state and out-of-state students in many higher education institutions across the country, this has been true for decades. Students in community colleges, who comprise the plurality of post-secondary students, also stay in their home states – or, more appropriately, stay close to their homes.
But it isn’t just geography that influences students’ choices in colleges and universities! In a study, one in four high school seniors considered the state where the colleges and universities were located due to political concerns. The influence of politics in the college decision process applies to both conservatives and liberals.
Such a significant influence may well be felt even more strongly than before, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution neither confirms nor guarantees the right to abortion. According to several well-known publications, abortion laws in states could be a huge factor among students in their choice of colleges and universities. For their part, colleges and universities are treading new territory in the political and legal landscape and, thus, may have to change their politics and rhetoric on abortion and other reproductive health issues.
Of course, the college admissions process in most non-sectarian and secular colleges and universities will likely leave the abortion and reproductive health issues out. Academic performance and potential, student diversity, and potential contributions to society will probably still be the foremost criteria in college admissions.
Politics and Its Influence on the Higher Education System
The U.S. educational system has close ties with the country’s political system in many ways. Under the Constitution’s 10th Amendment, the state government maintains the school districts while the U.S. Department of Education maintains administrative control over the school districts. The Department also recommends teaching methods and materials, but the state government can ignore them.
The state and federal governments have regulatory control over colleges and universities, albeit to varying degrees. Government agencies, for example, require these institutions to provide data on acceptance and graduation rates and cash flows of federally-funded research projects.
While only 8% of the federal government’s budget is allocated to schools, its regulatory function remains. Schools secure funding from other sources, too, such as the state and local government, mainly from property taxes. Schools also receive federal aid for students, such as the Pell Grants and via FAFSA.
Politics play a huge part in the content, learning outcomes and experiences, and underlying philosophy of curricula in schools! This is also true for hiring, promoting, and firing faculty members, as much as we hate to admit it.
Evaluation and Assessment
Politics also influence the evaluation of knowledge among students and teachers, particularly in standardized test scores used in the college admissions process and graduate outcomes.
Evolution and Development
There’s an ever-changing, ever-evolving aspect of formal education that usually keeps in step with changes in society. Political education, such as in the study of political science, has changed through the years as the U.S. political system has evolved.
Reasons to Study Politics and Political Science
But why should incoming and current college students study politics and political science? The study of politics and political science is vital in understanding your rights as a citizen and in clarifying your political beliefs. Your ability to engage in debate and discussion about the country’s current events and their impact on society will be significantly improved, too.
Political science majors aren’t just studying abstract concepts and dead people, either! Politics is a living subject with individuals and ideologies constantly changing, which, in turn, means the political landscape changes on a daily basis. Every political science major must be updated about current events to be productive in class discussions.
There’s also the fact that political science majors have excellent career prospects in government, as well as in for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Law, international relations, and journalism are a few of the possible career prospects that a political science and government major can look forward to.
Are you interested in political science programs? Here are the best colleges and universities that offer excellent political science programs for undergraduates:
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Johns Hopkins University
- Harvard University
- Stanford University
- Princeton University
- Yale University
- Duke University
- Columbia University
- Dartmouth College
- University of New Haven
The typical curriculum in these political science degree programs includes political theory, political economy, and economics. Many of these degree programs also offer emphasis areas in global politics, political economy, and public concentration.
Students in political science programs with interests in political activism and politics will find plenty of opportunities to engage in politics and participate in changing the political landscape. As a political science major, look for student organizations like the Pi Sigma Alpha, the National Political Science Honor Society, as well as the party-affiliated College Democrats and College Republicans.
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