College Students More Diverse, But Also More Divided


College students on campus | Image by Shutterstock

Although the student body in higher education institutions is more diverse demographically, a new study suggests that universities have over double the amount of left-leaning students than right-leaning.

According to the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, students at older Ivy League universities lean liberal or Democratic by a margin of 2.5 to 1, a ratio higher than the median voter.

College Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 55-23 and liberals outnumber conservatives by a margin of 53-21.

Data from the Higher Education Research Institute Freshman Survey, which sampled more than 100,000 freshman students, said the freshman population in the 1970s was very liberal following the student revolts of the 1960s but grew more conservative in the later part of the 1970s. By 1981, slightly more students considered themselves conservative or far-right than liberal or far-left.

The study said schools like Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and Baylor are more politically balanced. The University of Alabama had the highest diversity in viewpoints, with 35% conservative students, 37% liberal students, 36% Republican students, and 41% Democratic students.

The Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology used surveys from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) from 2020 and 2021 and sampled more than 57,000 undergraduates across 159 universities.

When considering whether those students who have been at university longer are more liberal or Democratic, the data shows no significant difference in liberalism or Democratic voting between older and younger students, potentially “indicating that the university experience is probably not having much effect on students’ political beliefs.”

“It could be the case that students’ politics are liberalized very early in their college experience,” the study suggests. “Or that aging and university socialization counteract each other. Still, these findings seem to reinforce the existing literature that finds little effect of university on students’ political attitudes.”

But the study hypothesizes that concentrations of liberal or conservative students can affect their peers.

“The FIRE data show apparent evidence for a small effect in which conservative students shift rightward in more conservative universities whereas black, Asian, and LGBTQ students resist moving right in such environments,” the study reads.

“Elite students will supply many of the leaders of tomorrow’s America, so it is vital to understand trends among them,” the study said.

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