College freshmen have never been this politically divided

Recent protests and contentious debates on campus have already suggested it, but now there's proof: this year's college freshmen are more politically divided than any other class in the last five decades. 

The proof comes by way of this year's annual American Freshman Survey, conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)'s Cooperative Institutional Research Program.

The survey's respondents consisted of over 137,400 full-time freshman students enrolled in 184 colleges and universities. UCLA researchers gathered and analyzed responses on a number of topics, and were able to conclude that, of this year's freshmen:

  • Slightly more than 42% identify as "middle-of-the-road" on political issues;
  • 35.5% identify as far left or liberal; and
  • 22% identify as far right or conservative.

According to the researchers, these results are the most divided they've been since they launched the survey 50 years ago. 

The researchers also found disparities in their responses based on gender. For instance:

  • About 41% of female respondents identify as liberal, compared with 29% of males; and
  • About 82% of women say the government should prioritize combating climate change, compared with about 77% of men.

According to survey responses, students' willingness to tolerate those with different beliefs than their own differs according to political beliefs. Among the respondents,

  • 86.6% of liberal students say they "strongly" or "somewhat strongly" tolerate others with different beliefs;
  • 82.2% of students identifying as "middle-of-the-road" say the same; and
  • 68.1% of conservative students say the same.

Kevin Eagan, the lead author of the survey and the managing director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, argue that the survey's findings suggest colleges should better encourage dialogues among students with different political views so as to bridge the tolerance gap.

According to Liz Rothenberg, a managing director at EAB, student activism on these divided college campuses is expected to continue—and even intensify.

"Successfully addressing student concerns and minimizing [unwanted] consequences requires proactive planning and leadership from administrators across the institution," Rothenberg says (Baur-Wolf, Inside Higher Ed, 5/1). 

Best practices for addressing the new wave of student activism

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