It is perfectly reasonable for the public to think that colleges and universities are filled with progressive activists. Campuses are overflowing with liberal messaging, from banners to large-scale displays advocating for so-called “justice” and “equity.” Even off campus, media coverage of controversies at Oberlin College and my own Sarah Lawrence College belies any notion of ideological balance in higher education. Cases of students shouting down speakers and even engaging in violence over political causes regularly make the news from UC Hastings to Yale and Georgetown.
What many Americans fail to realize is that most of this progressive shift is not coming from the students themselves; rather, it is being advanced by an activist administration that not only promotes particular values but also tries to set the terms of student discourse and engagement. This occurs inside the classroom—with administrators now playing a role in faculty hiring through diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and influencing syllabus content—and outside the classroom in student residence halls and social spaces, where administrators set the terms of political discourse and create non-inclusive spaces based on factors such as race and ethnicity.
New data from College Pulse’s Future of Politics study show the reality: today’s college and university students are not particularly excited by or aligned with Democrats or Republicans, and their political concerns are in line with the rest of the nation.
Consider partisanship and attitudes toward the two major parties at present. Today’s college and university students are not particularly supportive of either party. Only 25 percent of students state that the Republican Party is acting in the nation’s best interests. Just 21 percent believe that the Democratic Party is doing the same. This lack of partisan affection toward Democrats continues when respondents were asked if they could see themselves registering as a member of either major party at some point in the next decade. 49 percent of students report that they could definitely not or probably not imagine themselves registering as a Republican in the next ten years, and 42 percent feel the same way about Democrats. Finally, when thinking about the direction of the parties, there is again parity; 52 percent of students think that the GOP is heading in the wrong direction, and 53 percent think that the Democrats are moving in the wrong direction.
The Democratic Party is not favored by college and university students today. Recent polling of over 45,000 currently enrolled students at over 200 colleges and universities shows that partisan identification is not monolithic. While Republican students may only amount to 14 percent of the student population, the plurality of students identify as political independents and leaners (48 percent). There is a sizable number of Democrats—38 percent—but college students are not a unified political bloc whatsoever. Collegiate campuses indeed have greater numbers of those on the left when compared to the U.S. population as a whole, but there are also more centrist students on campus than there are in the nation’s population.
The social justice–laden narratives that are pervasive on so many campuses are not top of mind for many students today. When asked about the most urgent threat or issue to the future of the nation, polarization and government dysfunction are the most commonly cited issue (27 percent), followed by inflation (14 percent) and poverty and inequality (13 percent). These concerns mirror national sentiments, while many of the progressive ideas that are plastered around schools are of lower priority to most. Just 2 percent of students claim that racism is the most urgent issue, and 3 percent cite the criminal justice system. Students are far more concerned about misinformation, violent crime, authoritarianism, and global climate change. Messaging from activist administrators is not nearly as prominent as it may appear.
Impressions are not always reality, and Americans should be skeptical of what they see on campus. Omnipresent progressive messaging is impossible to ignore, but it overstates the beliefs of students. College and university students are not overwhelmingly liberal, and they dislike the Democratic Party in significant numbers. Students today are concerned about political paralysis and the economy, not the many socio-political issues that DEI administrators thrust on them. To be sure, none of this data suggest that students are rushing to the GOP. But they are far more reasonable and centrist than it may initially appear—there is an opening here for the Republican Party here if it chooses to seize it.
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