The Most Polarized Freshman Class in Half a Century

Survey results show first-year college students are more politically divided than ever before.

A stately university building is photographed on a slightly overcast day
Texas A&M University (Spencer Selvidge / Reuters)

College freshmen are more politically polarized today than they have been in the last 51 years, new survey results show.

Just over two in five of the 137,456 first-year college students across the United States who responded last fall to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute’s (HERI) annual freshman survey identified as non-partisan. On the other hand, 35.5 percent of students aligned themselves with liberal or far-left ideology, while 22.2 percent considered themselves conservative or far right. Millennial voting behavior in the 2016 election is consistent with this data, as 55 percent of the demographic cast its vote for Hillary Clinton, while 37 percent supported President Donald Trump. The findings also revealed a sharper ideological divide between male and female respondents than in previous surveys.

Students were not, of course, immune from the oftentimes acerbic rhetoric of the election, a fact researchers point to as a partial explanation for the shift from neutrality. Kevin Eagan, the study’s lead researcher and the managing director of HERI, said the erosion of the political middle has been occurring over the last few years, with the latest results in line with previous findings that show increasing ideological identification among college-going freshmen.

“Part of this trend may also be due to some of the gridlock in Congress,” Eagan said. “As Republicans took over Congress during Obama's final two years, students may have felt more pressure, more inclined to choose a side. And I think that last year's election certainly exacerbated that.”

That students today are more partisan is not surprising in light of the findings that more freshmen than ever before in the survey’s history said exerting political influence is one of their most important life goals. Eagan said a spike in metrics related to political engagement or interest is typical for a class entering college during a presidential-election year. These results also come on the heels of the survey’s 2015 responses which reflect a class comprised of freshmen more likely to participate in a student-led protest than any previous group of students.

And the partisan rift isn’t limited to a liberal-conservative axis—it’s also a function of gender. More women identified with left-of-center ideology than ever before in the survey’s history, with more than four in five agreeing that global climate change should be a federal priority and more than three in four supporting stricter gun-control laws. Meanwhile, 41.1 percent of women identified as liberal or far left compared to just 28.9 percent of men—the largest such gender chasm since the survey was first administered in 1966. Eagan noted that having a woman as the Democratic nominee for president likely “galvanized” female college-goers, contributing to the ideological disparity.

Women in their first year of college have more strongly identified with liberalism than men have since the 1980s, survey results show. However, the latest findings reflect unprecedented gender polarization. This data is also in line with 2016 election results that show one of the largest gender gaps in presidential candidate preference, according to the Pew Research Center.

In light of these results—and the findings that 68.1 percent of conservative students, 82 percent of non-partisan students, and 86.6 percent of liberal students view themselves as tolerant of other people’s beliefs—Eagan said colleges have an chance to mediate some of these divides.

“[There is a space for] campus leaders to make sure they're providing structured and safe opportunities for students to talk about their differences in a respectful, civil manner so as to avoid more troubling conflict if these views are unable to be aired in a productive way," Eagan said.