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College Freshmen Are More Politically Engaged Than They Have Been In Decades

A new survey that captures the attitudes of 2015 college freshmen shows unprecedented levels of interest in both political engagement and student activism, underscoring the youth vote’s potential to reshape the electoral landscape. The survey also finds that more of these students identify as liberals, seek to become community leaders and want to influence the political structure.

The Higher Education Research Institute — a group based at the University of California, Los Angeles — polled 141,189 people who represent the country’s full-time, first-year students starting four-year colleges and universities in the fall of 2015. The demographics of college freshmen have changed considerably since the survey was first administered in 1966, and it provides insight into the attitudes of this constituency, which has long puzzled researchers but stands out as a key demographic group for politicians.

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The survey found that nearly 9 percent of freshmen say there’s a “very good chance” they’ll participate in a student protest on campus, the highest in the survey’s history and up from about 6 percent in 2014. Black and Latino students were more likely to express this view than white and Asian-American students. (The survey was administered from March 14, 2015, through Oct. 12, 2015, a period in which protests on college campuses were generating some media attention, but was completed a month before black students on the University of Missouri football team issued their call for the university system president to step down, bringing greater national attention to campus protests.)

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The survey’s lead author, HERI Managing Director Kevin Eagan, said in an interview that student protests on campus “may not be political in the sense that most people think about politics.” Students may instead “be demonstrating on their campus for greater college affordability; they might be protesting because of acts of racism or racial bias, or sexual assault.” Still, 60 percent of freshmen indicated that they plan to vote in an election while in college — an increase of 10 percentage points compared with the 2014 survey. (HERI doesn’t have comparable data for freshmen in the 2011-12 school year, when attitudes toward the upcoming presidential election may have been different.)

From one vantage point, the emboldened political attitudes of these 18- and 19-year-olds mirror a rise in volunteerism and commitment to others also captured in the survey — offering evidence disputing the view of younger Americans as narcissistic or incurious about the world. The 2015 survey also shows that 40 percent of freshman students believe it is “essential” or “very important” to become community leaders, representing the highest share of students with that opinion in the survey’s history. Nearly three-quarters of those who took the survey indicated that helping others in difficulty is an important goal, the highest such result since the question was first asked in 1966. The importance of improving one’s understanding of other countries and cultures is also at its highest point since the question was first posed in 2002, with almost 60 percent of freshmen saying it’s “very important” or “essential” to them.

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On some questions about embracing other cultures, however, large disparities exist along racial lines. The report notes that although roughly one-third of white students believe it’s important to promote racial understanding, 53 percent of Latino students and 64 percent of black students felt similarly.

Tyrone Howard, a scholar at UCLA who studies multiculturalism in education and is unaffiliated with the survey, said it doesn’t surprise him that “students of color who feel the effect of racial discrimination and prejudice would want to see steps taken to increase better racial understanding and coexistence among students.” Concerned Student 1950, the University of Missouri student organization that is credited with touching off the protests on that campus that led to the university system president’s ouster, issued a list of demands that included more efforts to increase diversity among students and faculty.

“I don’t think white students see that as much because they’re not a target of that,” Howard added, as a way of explaining the higher percentages of black and Latino students who favor promoting racial understanding. “Seeing people who look like you makes you feel like you belong there, like you’re welcomed there, like you matter there.”

The political engagement of college students has been studied before. A 2010 report released by the same UCLA research group found that 75 percent of eligible college freshmen voted in the 2008 presidential election. That turnout exceeded the nation’s overall voter participation rate, which at 64 percent was the highest since the 1960s. The students’ political punch likely benefited Barack Obama, as 37 percent of the freshmen and seniors captured by the 2010 study identified as liberal, and 24 percent said they were conservative.

Although the 2008 election that resulted in the nation’s first black president was an outlier in voter turnout, just being on a college campus increases the likelihood that a young person will vote, said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University in Massachusetts. For one thing, “there’s a huge amount of outreach that focuses on colleges,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said, because “that’s where a lot of the get-out-the-vote and registration resources are focused on, especially when it comes to youth.”

She also considers university campuses locations where students develop strong attitudes about civic engagement. That in turn may alter the outcomes in certain races. Her center at Tufts recently released a guide to 2016 races where college students could have an outsize role and published an analysis suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ success in Iowa could in part be attributed to his support in counties with a large number of college students.

Young adults in college have been more likely to head to the polls than those who weren’t attending college, though this gap could be explained by other demographic factors. Using data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, Kawashima-Ginsberg analyzed every national election year since 2008 to show the gap in voter turnout between 18- to 24-year-olds who were and were not enrolled in college:

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The 2015 freshman survey also asked college students about their political leanings. Roughly one-third of first-year students view themselves as “liberal” or “far left,” and about a fifth identify as “conservative” or “far right.” That percentage of freshmen identifying as liberal or far left is the highest since 1973, when 36 percent responded that way.

The larger share of liberal-minded freshmen adds new complexity to recent data that suggests that younger voters, millennials born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have shown slightly more conservative attitudes. The New York Times in 2014 visualized the political orientation of voters based on when they were born, with David Leonhardt wondering whether older millennials whose adult years were shaped by the recession would swing more left than their younger peers who came of age associating the recession with Obama’s presidency.

Still, scholars warn against comparing the political persuasions of young college students to the wider youth vote. One recent Harvard University poll shows that 18- to 29-year-olds during Obama’s administration have been fairly uniform in their attitudes about the president (mostly supportive) regardless of whether they were in college. Like the nation at large, though, whites among 18- to 29-year-olds were much less likely to have a favorable view of Obama than blacks and Latinos in the same age group.

Even if they are eager to participate, college students can face some challenges at the voting booth. Since the 2012 presidential election, more states have toughened their voting laws, with numerous changes going into effect this year, which some advocates say makes it harder for students and lower-income residents to vote. How might this affect voter turnout among college kids? “Any administrative process you can add to a young person’s voting is only going to make it harder,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said, “because they’re dealing with adjustment.”

Mikhail Zinshteyn is a program manager at the Education Writers Association.

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