Students More Liberal? Not So Fast

Political and Social Views Decidedly More Liberal.”  That’s the first finding in the 2011 American Freshman Survey, a project of the Higher Education Research Initiative at UCLA,
one of the largest annual surveys of college students. 
Last year, the Survey chalked up 204,000 first-year-of-college
respondents who filled out a lengthy questionnaire on behaviors,
attitudes, and background. 

Some of the questions were political, and the authors derive a definite liberal trend among the 2011 cohort.

First, support for same-sex marriage has jumped six percentage points since 2009–64.9 percent to 71.3 percent. 
Even self-identified conservative students agreed at a rate of
42.8 percent, leading the authors to conclude with an air of triumph,
“We are rapidly approaching the point where it will be a definitive
minority opinion amongst college students that same-sex
couples should be deprived of the right to legal marriage. 
Given the influence of young voters in the last Presidential election,
candidates for office should be aware of how college students’ views of
this civil rights issue are progressing.”

Second, opposition to public education for
undocumented immigrants has dropped four percentage points since
2009–47.2 percent to 43 percent.

Third, support for the legalization of marijuana has climbed 3.5 points since 2009–45.6 percent to 49.1 percent.

Fourth, support for abortion rights has risen 2.7 points–58 percent to 60.7 percent.

The fifth finding, however, shows a reversal of liberal leanings. 
Support for national health care dropped nearly one point from
2010–61.3 percent to 60.5 percent–and the latter figures marks a
veritable plummet from 2007, when 74.5 percent of first-year students
supported national health care.

The authors downplay this decided turn toward
conservatism, saying only that it is “sure to be an issue on college
campuses as we proceed toward the national presidential election.” 
Given the enormity of the health care issue in terms of finance
and reach, particularly in relation to the other issues here, one might
temper the “liberal trend” conclusion.

Indeed, we might even question whether “liberal” is the right term for the drift in 1 through 4. 
Each one involves a reduction in government restriction of
individual choice, a position that corresponds more closely with
“libertarian” than “liberal.” 
After all, the Clinton and Obama Administrations were and are just as aggressive in the War on Drugs as Bush I and II were. 
And libertarians firmly oppose immigration restrictions and support gay marriage rights. 
There is, too, a conservative case to make on all three issues. 
Furthermore, a libertarian classification would explain the apparent inconsistency of 1-4 and 5.

The common thread isn’t a political one, but a personal one. 
Most American 19-year-old college students aren’t liberal or conservative as those terms are understood today. 
They don’t know enough about liberalism of conservatism to qualify. 
Instead, they are individualistic.  “If I
want to marry someone of my own sex,” they say, “if I want to smoke a
joint, if I need to end my pregnancy, and if I don’t want to buy health
insurance, no cop or Congressman or clerk can


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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3 thoughts on “Students More Liberal? Not So Fast

  1. I think libertarian is a good way to describe where students are moving. I am a junior in college, and certainly consider myself a conservative. Although my campus is very liberal, I many more students than people think understand the problems that come along with a big bloated centralized government. Although I disagree with the libertarians on some social and national security issues, I certainly respect their point of view, and they are heavily involved and welcomed into our conservative organizations. In my opinion, I think those who are libertarians now will adopt more socially conservative positions as they get older, as they see that the freedom they want can only stand with a strong moral and cultural order, as well as a strong and active American foreign policy that assures the US is never at a point where it can ever be threatened at all.

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