Conservative activists and politicians have long argued that colleges indoctrinate and brainwash students into becoming liberals. On Wednesday, the Trump administration fed into these complaints, threatening to cut funding from public universities that don’t support religious student clubs ― a move lauded by Christian groups that insist conservative students face discrimination on college campuses.
A new nationwide survey that followed students at 116 colleges from their freshman to senior years suggests that what actually shapes political views during their education is much more complex.
Students’ personal political identities didn’t seem to shift significantly during their four years at college, according to data collected from the fall of 2015 to the spring of 2019 for the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, led by researchers at North Carolina State University, Ohio State University and the nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core.
What did change, however, is how students felt about political liberals. The survey suggested that students’ appreciation for both conservatives and liberals increased during freshman year. But by the time they graduated, positive attitudes toward conservatives dropped back to freshman-year levels, while opinions about liberals continued to improve.
Students’ attitudes toward political conservatives declined more sharply during college than their attitudes toward any other identity group the researchers asked about.
The survey was supported by Interfaith Youth Core, which promotes interfaith cooperation in higher education, and was led by Matthew J. Mayhew from Ohio State and Alyssa N. Rockenbach from North Carolina State. It surveyed students when they entered university in 2015, after their first year, and near the end of their senior year. The most recent data from this survey, published on Aug. 24, compiles the responses of 3,486 students from public, private, and religious schools who responded to all three queries.
Mayhew and Rockenbach found only small shifts in students’ political worldviews over the four years. Students who identified as “liberal” or “very liberal” grew from 44% at the beginning of college to 53% during senior year, according to the survey. Students identifying as “conservative” or “very conservative” dipped from 16% to 14% during that same time period.
These shifts aren’t significant enough to support the much-touted claim that colleges indoctrinate students against political conservatism, Mayhew and Rockenbach said.
“Such modest shifts do not definitively point to college as a ‘liberalizing’ force in students’ lives (as many national narratives suggest) given that many students did not appear to change their political leanings appreciably,” Mayhew and Rockenbach told HuffPost in a joint statement.
Previous studies have found that college students’ movement toward the left falls in line with the political shifts most Americans experience between the ages of 18 and 24. Researchers also have suggested that college graduates tend to be more liberal because people going to college are more likely to be liberal in the first place.
In addition to looking at students’ personal political views, Mayhew and Rockenbach measured positive views of liberals and conservatives. To collect this data, they asked students how strongly they agreed with four statements for 13 different identity groups, including political liberals and political conservatives:
- In general, people in this group make positive contributions to society.
- People in this group are ethical.
- I have things in common with people in this group.
- I have a positive attitude toward people in this group.
If students agreed at least somewhat with all four statements for a particular group, they were classified as “highly appreciative” of that group.
Overall, students had less favorable attitudes toward political conservatives than liberals when they first started college, the researchers found. But during their freshman year, students gained more positive views of both conservatives and liberals ― possibly because of how colleges create opportunities for freshmen to learn how to navigate differences and form relationships with people of diverse worldviews during such programming as orientation and first-year seminars.
However, a split emerged after that first year.
Overall, positive attitudes toward politically liberal people continued to increase. When they entered college in 2015, 58% of the students reported “high” positive attitudes toward liberals. This increased to 70% by the time they graduated in 2019.
Two religious groups that traditionally have strong ties to the Republican Party ― evangelical Christians and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons ― exhibited an uptick in positive attitudes toward liberals. Sixty-three percent of evangelical students held positive views about liberals in 2019, an increase of 9 percentage points from 2016. Sixty-nine percent of Latter-Day Saints held positive views of liberals in their senior year, a 4-point increase from 2016.
Positive attitudes toward conservatives generally declined to start-of-college levels after the first year. Forty-two percent of students began college with positive attitudes toward conservatives, increasing to 50% in 2016. But those positive attitudes slumped to 42% in their senior year, the researchers found. About 50% of evangelical students expressed positive views of conservatives in 2019, an 8-point decline from 2016.
Latter-Day Saints’ transformation over this time period was much more stark. Their positive views about conservatives declined 18 percentage points from 2016 to 2019, ending at 53%. Both evangelicals and Latter-Day Saints actually appreciated political conservatives less by the end of college than they did in their first year.
Catholic students’ positive views of liberals declined by 4 percentage points from 2016 to 2019, landing at 63%. But their views of conservatives fell more sharply, declining by 11 points to 34% in 2019.
Mayhew and Rockenbach pointed out that this cohort of students entered college during a particularly volatile political period. President Donald Trump’s “highly polarizing” administration could have affected the students’ attitudes about conservatives, the researchers said.
“Although we can’t know for certain the extent to which the national context contributed to the decline, we presume it played a role,” the researchers said.
The survey also looked at how comfortable students felt expressing their views. The majority of all religious groups surveyed agreed that their campuses and classes were safe places to express their worldviews. Atheist and nonreligious students were particularly likely to say they felt safe expressing their views on campus (84%), while Jewish students were the most likely to say the same about sharing their views in class (83%).
Among evangelical students, 75% said they felt safe sharing their views on campus and 65% said they felt safe doing so in their classrooms. Buddhists were the least likely to agree that their campuses (67%) and classrooms (53%) were safe places to share their views.
Overall, Buddhists, Hindus, and students from other minority religions, such as Daoism, Jainism, and Native American traditions, consistently reported less support on campus than their peers, whether it was being offered religious accommodations or having a place on campus where they felt they could express their views.
One of the survey’s main goals was to determine how colleges can bridge religious divides and counter polarization in American society. Mayhew and Rockenbach found that certain groups of students— atheists, evangelical Christians, political conservatives, STEM majors, and men — appeared less inclined to value interfaith bridge-building by the time they reached their final year of college. Because members of these groups are often influential on campus and in society, the researchers said it was important for universities to address this gap by increasing interfaith programming and making interfaith experiences mandatory.
In order to help all students appreciate political conservatives, Mayhew and Rockenbach advised colleges to be more intentional about expanding intellectual and viewpoint diversity on campus.
Students majoring in the arts and humanities were the least likely to grow in their appreciation toward political conservatives, the researchers said. Mayhew and Rockenbach said it was important for professors in these fields to include diverse perspectives in their courses and to model how to appreciate political conservatives ― even if they disagree with their politics. Educators should be trained to minimize hostile exchanges across political perspectives, while facilitating tough but productive conversations, they said.
“Although these conversations may be uncomfortable and somewhat intense, skillful educators will be able to use those moments of dissonance as learning opportunities, leaving all students more tolerant ― and even appreciative ― of people holding competing political perspectives,” the researchers said.