Some Surprising Facts About College Students' Politics
The perception of a liberal, monolithic student body on today’s college and university campuses needs to change. While critics of higher education often rail against the collegiate enterprise and condemn the left-leaning prejudices of students, the fact of the matter is that the political hearts and minds of our nation’s undergraduates are not overwhelmingly aligned with either major political party. While college and university students today largely reject the Republican Party, they are not heavily supportive of the Democrats either. Instead, most students are Independents and untethered to either major party, suggesting that a huge opportunity exists for whichever party is wise enough to pay attention to the growing number Gen Zers in college today.
A new survey from College Pulse, fielded in September, captures the voices of over 1,500 college students nationally and reveals a deep disconnect between students and both major parties. Most college students do not see themselves as Democrats or Republicans. Thirty-four percent of students surveyed identify as strong or weak Democrats and 11 percent claim to be strong or weak Republicans, leaving the majority — 54 percent — in the middle, identifying as Independents, Leaners, or something else entirely.
It is the case, however, that college students are notably more liberal than their university counterparts are. Half of those in college claim to be strong or weak Democrats compared to just 32 percent of those enrolled in universities. As a result, only a third of college students (32 percent) are Independents compared to almost half (47 percent) of those students on universities campuses. A similar pattern emerges when private and public schools are considered: There are notably more Democrats at private schools (41 percent) than at public schools (31 percent). Thus, only about a third of students (35 percent) at private schools are in the middle compared to almost half of those (49 percent) in public schools. Although students clearly favor the Democratic Party to the GOP, Democrats are far from dominant on campuses today.
Moreover, the collegiate figures show that students today are no more Democratic than the nation as a whole. Nationally, about a third (33 percent) of registered voters identify as Democrats, about three in 10 (29 percent) identify as Republicans, and the remainder (34 percent) are Independents. While college students are less likely to be Republican and more likely to be centrist, they are by no means more left than the rest of the nation.
Unsurprisingly, some majors do have higher proportions of Democrats as some fields of study are far more political and activism-focused than others. But once again, the student figures reveal far more balance than what many believe. Just 38 percent of those who major in the humanities, arts, and various area studies — the departments that tend to be the most progressive and activist-oriented — are Democrats while 9 percent are Republican. The majority (52 percent) of students in these fields are somewhere in the middle. Performing and visual arts majors — perhaps one of the most vocally left of center set of departments and majors — is the most lopsided with 56% of students identifying as strong or weak Democrat and just 5% are Republicans. Only 39% are somewhere in the middle, but this is still a significant number of students. Moving beyond the humanities, 29 percent of students majoring in business or an allied field such as accounting or management identify as Democrats, 17 percent as Republicans, and the majority (52 percent) are in the middle. Engineers and computer scientists look very similar: 29 percent are Democrats, 13 percent are Republicans, and the majority (58 percent) are centrist. As for those studying economics and the social sciences, just 27 percent are Democrats and 15 percent are Republican. Again, most (58 percent) students in these fields are in the middle. These data show that across fields of study, students are far more balanced than critics often contend.
The Republican Party has clearly alienated many college students in recent years. Still, most of these students have not migrated to the Democratic Party. In fact, most students dislike both parties: Only 10 percent think that the Republican Party is moving in the right direction, and just 18 percent say the Democrats are doing so.
College and university students are pessimistic about both parties because they want more problem solving and moderation, less posturing, and ideological extremism. They are not a left-leaning generation. If anything, our polling shows a clear preference among Gen Z voters for pragmatic centrism. Whichever party wants to win their votes will have to appeal to the middle.
As Gen Z matures, the call from the middle will grow louder. Party extremism is a road to oblivion with young voters.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Jeremi Suri is Mack Brown distinguished chair for leadership in global affairs and professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin.