Mixed Portrait of Freshman Political Views: Their beliefs may lean liberal, but their politics tell a different story
New research reveals that college freshmen hold increasingly liberal views on key social issues like same-sex marriage and rights for illegal immigrants. But the progressive viewpoints haven’t translated into significantly greater levels of activism or heightened enthusiasm for national politics.
Those findings, published Thursday in an annual survey from the University of California at Los Angeles, paint a complicated election-year portrait of the country’s newest prospective voters. Are they progressive-minded and eager to embrace more-tolerant social views? Are they cynical products of a sour economy and a fractious political era, bent on punishing the establishment by staying home on Election Day? Or are they simply more inclined to favor civic engagement on a local level—volunteering in their communities, say—over national politics?
Or are they all of the above?
The research, done each year by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, along with other recent reports, provides some clarity, but only to a point. Consider these trends: In 1997, the year that UCLA researchers first began asking freshmen for their views on same-sex marriage, slightly more than half of all respondents said they supported it. In the latest survey, that percentage had reached an all-time high of 71 percent. (For more on how students’ views on social issues have changed over time, see related charts.)
Other findings from this year’s survey point to whether students act on those political beliefs.
Ten percent of respondents said they had worked on a local, state, or national campaign during the past year, placing them on the low end of a figure that has fluctuated between 8 and 15 percent over the past four decades.
At a time when angst over student debt and demonstrations linked to the Occupy movement have ignited some campuses, only 6 percent of respondents said they anticipated taking part in student protests while in college. (In the late 1960s, those numbers were, perhaps surprisingly, even lower: In 1968, 5 percent of respondents said they planned to take part in protests. The figure has never topped 9 percent.)
Numbers, of course, tell only part of the story. For every statistic that portends an apathetic future for today’s young voters, there is a student whose behavior augurs something quite different.