I just finished reading Libby Sander's “The Politics of Freshmen: a Mixed Portrait” in the most recent The Chronicle of Higher Education, summarizing portions of the findings of the annual survey conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. The article in The Chronicle, as well as the full report (.pdf) of the CIRP, are well worth your read.

[The findings] 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 annual CIRP Freshman Survey has, since 1967, asked first-year students to characterize their political views as either “Far left,” “Liberal,” “Middle of the road,” “Conservative” or “Far right.” The results of the 2011 survey across all institutions are tabulated below:

Response 2011 2010 2009 maximum
Far left 2.7% 2.9% 2.8% 3.4% (2004/05)
Liberal 27.6% 27.3% 29.0% 37.9% (1971)
Middle of the road 47.4% 46.4% 44.4% 57.3% (1980)
Conservative 20.7% 21.7% 21.8% 23.9% (2006)
Far right 1.6% 1.8% 2.0% 2.2% (2004)
Reproduced below is the graphic from The Chronicle (page A11) representing the trends for "political views" from 1970 to 2011.

Respondents to the 2011 CIRP Freshman Survey were asked ten questions related to their social and political views:

1. Abortion should be legal
2. Marijuana should be legalized
3. Racial discrimination is no longer a major problem in America
4. Same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status
5. Federal military spending should be increased
6. Undocumented immigrants should be denied access to public education
7. Students from disadvantaged social backgrounds should be given preferential treatment in college admissions
8. A national health care plan is needed to cover everyone's medical costs
9. Addressing global warming should be a federal priority
10. The chief benefit of a college education is that it increases one's earning power

The 2011 Survey reports students' responses of “agree strongly” or “agree somewhat” as a single statistic. Those responses are tabulated here together with responses to identical questions (if asked; the set varies year-to-year) in 2010 and 2009:

Question    agree, 2011 agree, 2010 agree, 2009
1. abortion 60.7% n/a 58.0%
2. marijuana 49.1% n/a 45.6%
3. discrimination 24.5% n/a 23.2%
4. same-sex marriage 71.3% n/a 64.9%
5. military spending 30.5% n/a n/a
6. immigrants / public ed 43.0% n/a 47.2%
7. preferential admissions 42.1% n/a 37.4%
8. national health plan 60.5% 61.3% n/a
9. global warming 63.2% 63.1% n/a
10. higher ed / earning 72.3% 72.7% n/a
The first Chapter of the 2011 CIPR report is entitled “Political and Social Views Decidedly More Liberal” and discusses the five substantial changes in the liberal direction indicated by these survey data. These changes are on the issues of 1) support for same-sex marriage, 2) the belief that undocumented immigrants should have access to public education, 3) the belief that disadvantaged students should be given preferential treatment in admissions, 4) support for the legalization of marijuana and 5) agreement with the statement that abortions should be legal.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, support among first-year students has risen from 64.9% in 2009 to 71.3% in 2011. Although the data-tables accompanying the .pdf of the CIPR Surveys do not break respondents down into finer categories of gender, political identity et cetera, the text of the report does note that while male first-year students (56.7% in 2009, 64.1% in 2011) continue to lag behind female students in support of same-sex marriage (71.8% in 2009, 77.3% in 2011) the gap does seem to be narrowing. As expected, support among liberal and far-left students (88.3%) is quite strong at 88.3%; more surprisingly, perhaps, is the 42.8% support for same-sex marriage among conservative and far-right students. As the authors of the report note:

We are rapidly approaching the point where it will be a definitive minority opinion amongst college students that same-sex couples should be deprived of the right to legal marriage.

The second liberalizing trend noted by the CIRP researchers was in the responses to the statement that “undocumented immigrants should be denied access to public education.” In 2009, 47.2% of first-year students agreed with that statement while in 2011 agreement fell to 43.0%. While the report does not include the breakdown by political identity for 2009, it does note that in 2011 support was at 61.0% among self-identified conservatives and at 29.6% among self-described liberals.

The third substantial change was on the issue of preferential treatment in college/university admissions to students from disadvantaged social backgrounds. Support for such policies increased from 37.4% in 2009 to 42.1% in 2011, marking the highest support in the history of the question, first posed in the 1971 survey.

Researchers also note the data indicating increasing support for the legalization of marijuana, up from 45.6% in 2009 to 49.1% in 2011. The highest support (heh...) was 51.3% in 1977, while the lowest was 16.7% in 1989, from which point support has steadily increased.

The fifth liberalizing trend is support for the statement that “abortion should be legal,” up slightly from  58.0% in 2009 to 60.7% yet still down from the recent high of 67.2% in 1992; the high-water mark was 85.7% in 1970. Among self-described liberal first-year students support is now at 79.4%; among conservatives, 37.4%.

The one significant downturn noted by the researchers was with responses to the statement that “a national health care plan is needed to cover everyone's medical costs.” The decrease from 2010 (61.3% support) to 2011 (60.5%) is not significant by itself, but both percentages are dramatically lower than the 74.5% recorded in 2007 or the all-time high support of 77.6% in 1992.

In her article in The Chronicle, Sander discusses these (generally) liberalizing trends and places them within the context of a population of first-year students who characterize themselves by-and-large as “middle of the road.” For these students, holding what we might identify as liberal or left-leaning views does not necessarily correspond to self-identification as “a liberal.” Citing several other studies in addition to the CIRP Freshman Survey, including the December report from the Harvard Institute of Politics ("Survey of Young Americans' Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service: 20th Edition" [.pdf]) Sander proposes that while liberal views are becoming increasingly mainstream among these first-year students there has been a simultaneous increase in political disengagement and disenchantment emanating from both pessimism with respect to the direction of the country and frustration with polarizing partisan politics.

Quite frankly, we need a solid program of outreach to college and university students, and to Millennials more generally, if we are to help overcome the cynicism with which our national politics are viewed by these cohorts and come at all near to approaching the 2008 level of youthful participation in the run-up to November and on Election Day itself. Apathy and disengagement are truly our worst enemies.

Of the seven students with whom she'll live in the fall, five expect to vote for Obama.

But two others, Ms. Stephens says, have been struggling with their political loyalties, thanks to a deepening distrust of government. As she puts it: “They're just mad.”

That anger dissipated last week. Mr. Obama's State of the Union Speech on Tuesday night electrified the seven friends. The two skeptics, Ms. Stephens now reports, are back in the fold. For the moment.

Originally posted to angry marmot on Thu Feb 02, 2012 at 10:49 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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