College politically engages students, but doesn’t make them more liberal


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Dive Brief:

  • People who attend college are slightly less likely to be politically moderate than those that don’t — but higher education affects men and women differently, according to peer-reviewed research published in PLOS One, an open-access journal.
  • Researchers found college politically mobilizes women more than men in general. Colleges were also more likely to have made women more liberal in the past than they do today.
  • While men may become more politically aware in college, higher education doesn’t make them more likely to lean liberal or conservative, the research found.

Dive Insight:

Higher education frequently faces accusations of pushing an overly progressive worldview onto students, leading to homogenized thinking. Almost half of adults, 47%, believe that college makes people more politically liberal, compared to only 6% who said it makes people more conservative, according to a 2022 YouGov poll

Politicians often repeat this claim as they work to undo the aspects of higher education they disagree with. In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has lambasted his state’s public colleges and is working to remake them to more closely mirror conservative institutions like Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a private Christian liberal arts school.

But the new research in PLOS One “cautions against viewing college as a uniform and overall equalizing experience.” It demonstrates changes in higher education’s influence over time.

“We did find that people who go to college are a bit less likely to be moderate. They’re more likely to have a political position, but it doesn’t look like there’s any liberalizing tendency,” said Stephen Vaisey, professor of sociology at Duke University and a coauthor of the research. “If there was a time when college was dramatically liberalizing, it was in the past and it was especially for women.”

Researchers found that twice as many women as men who were born in 1933 became more liberal during college. It is possible that during this time, the height of this gender gap, college exposed women to more liberal social ideas that they wouldn’t have learned about otherwise, the research said. The divergence between women and men shrank beginning with the 1944 birth cohort and eventually stabilized two decades later.

At the beginning of the 20th century, male students leaned slightly more liberal after attending college. But from 1944 on, men were simply less likely to be moderate, increasingly taking a side on either end of the political spectrum.

It could appear that modern-day college graduates are disproportionately liberal because left-leaning students are more likely to enroll in the first place, Vaisey said.

The research worked to remove self-selection bias — when people sort themselves into a group, like enrolling in college — by weighing student factors like their religion and hometown, in addition to their parent’s highest level of education and the prestige of their fathers’ job.

The findings reinforce that college’s effects on political beliefs are not as straightforward as some believe, according to Alyssa Rockenbach, a higher education professor at North Carolina State University. Rockenbach specializes in the intersectional identities of college students.

“College’s influence in people’s lives is almost always more complex than is assumed,” she said in an email. “The notion that college liberalizes students — or that higher education is a bastion of liberal ideologies — has been used to dismiss all that higher education contributes to society and has been the basis of efforts to undermine higher education’s critical social role and autonomy.”


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