Do conservative students turn liberal when they go to college? It’s complicated

Students who reported more 'provocative encounters’ — or encounters that caused students to question their basic assumptions and beliefs — were less likely to vote for President Trump in 2016

Matthew Mayhew, Kevin Singer
Friday 11 September 2020 18:42
Our research threw up some surprising data
Our research threw up some surprising data

It’s no secret that President Trump isn’t exactly a fan of higher education. Few have forgotten his tweet that claimed: “Too many Universities… are about Radical Left Indoctrination not Education.” Shortly after that, he proposed that the Justice Department revisit the tax-exempt status of colleges and universities who fit his description.

Trump’s perspective harmonizes with a plethora of conservative opinion pieces that call for the defunding of higher education, usually stemming from the perception that college liberalizes students. The central argument is that higher education is supposed to be a free marketplace of ideas where students are exposed to differing opinions. If conservative ideologies are silenced and people are “de-platformed”, the argument goes, then higher education isn’t doing its job and taxpayers shouldn’t fund it.

The problem is, this may not be the case.

We recently finished an unprecedented study that followed thousands of students across their four years of college across over 120 schools (from 2015 to 2019). The design of our study allowed us to see if and how students changed in college, including their attitudes toward different groups and their political beliefs, and what contributed to those changes. The study, IDEALS, was led by research teams at Ohio State University, North Carolina State University, and Interfaith Youth Core.

We found that the proportion of students with a high appreciation for politically conservative views remained the same over four years in college. At the time of their graduation, students were just as likely as when they began college to report that political conservatives make positive contributions to society and are ethical people, as well as agreeing that they share things in common with political conservatives and have a positive attitude toward political conservatives.

Interestingly, conservative appreciation differed by political identification, with politically moderate students reporting a 5.3 percent increase and political conservatives reporting a 2.3 percent increase. Political liberals showed no increase — but importantly no decrease — in the proportion of students with high appreciation for political conservatives. According to these data, there is little evidence to support the argument that college manufactures people who despise conservatives.

The other side of the coin is whether college is spitting out far more liberals — and fewer conservatives — after students complete four years of college.

At the beginning of college, 44 percent of our sample of undergraduate students identified as politically liberal or very liberal, which increased to 53 percent (+9 percent) by the end of students’ fourth year. On the other side of the aisle, 16 percent of students began college identifying as politically conservative or very conservative, and this number decreased just slightly to 14 percent (-2 percent) at the end of students’ fourth year. A more dramatic decrease occurred among political moderates, which began with 40 percent of students and ended at 32 percent, an 8 percent decline over four years.

While we can report that more students identify as politically liberal and less students identify as politically conservative after four years in college, the change is not as dramatic as some may have guessed. Rather, how students identify politically after four years of college may have more to do with their political views before they started college.

Nevertheless, because we asked students about the environments and experiences that they encountered in college, the study can identify what about their college experience may have pushed students to vote Republican or Democrat in the 2016 presidential election.

We found that those students who reported more “provocative encounters,” or encounters that caused students to question their basic assumptions and beliefs, were less likely to vote for President Trump in 2016. This was also true for students who said they “developed a deeper skill-set to interact with people of different perspectives” during college, likely as a result of these encounters. We also found that students who were exposed to diverse peers — who reported dining with peers of different perspectives, participation in multicultural campus activities, and enrollment in a diversity course — were more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

These findings raise important questions. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a steady current of conservative opinion has held that the crisis is overblown, while the political left and the liberal media are united on leveraging the crisis to crash the economy and take Trump down. Of those who identify as conservative, 37 percent agreed in a recent Pew survey that the Covid-19 outbreak was probably or definitely planned by powerful people. Meanwhile, as Black Lives Matter protests continue in major cities throughout the country, conservative voices have remained intent in their opposition to “the mob.” In a video recently released by Republican senators and conservative media figures, Dana Loesch argued that: “Free speech is a pillar of a free society and the best way to collectively seek and defend the truth,” adding that “firing and canceling those who offend woke sensibilities is grotesque, illiberal, and un-American.”

The common thread seems to be that unlike the left, conservatives are able to see the forest from the trees and think critically about what’s really happening: individual liberties are being undermined.

Yet, our research shows that when confronted with opportunities to think critically about their beliefs and assumptions, students were less likely to vote Republican in 2016. Is it possible that political conservatives, though they emphasize individual liberty and autonomy, are more susceptible to groupthink?

On the flip side, are liberal students catching a vision for diversity in college that includes conservatives? Conservative students frequently report classroom environments and interactions with liberal peers and faculty that are stifling. A recent study found that 68 percent of conservative students self-censor in the classroom, compared to just 24 percent of liberals. In fact, a quarter of conservative students agreed they were concerned that peers would file a complaint against them for speech related to a class they attended together.

Our findings suggest the narrative that college systematically liberalizes students is overblown, but not entirely incorrect. After all, the study found that more students leave college as liberals, and fewer students leave college as conservatives. However, the proposition that universities are “about radical left indoctrination, not education,” and should have their tax-exempt status revoked, does not find any support in our data.

Nevertheless, it is incumbent on colleges and universities to help students develop an appreciation for political conservatives. Without condoning opinions that are wrong or blatantly racist, educators need to acknowledge that students, both political liberals and conservatives, come to college with things they need to learn and unlearn and it is our role to walk them through these processes, not stifle their expression of deeply-held beliefs.


Acknowledgement: The authors would like to acknowledge Alyssa Rockenbach, co-principal investigator of IDEALS, and Christa Winkler and Laura Dahl for their help running and analyzing the data in this piece.

Matthew J. Mayhew (@MattJMayhewPhD) is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher professor of educational administration at Ohio State University and co-principal investigator of IDEALS

Kevin Singer (@kevinsinger0) is a PhD student in higher education at North Carolina State University and a research associate for IDEALS

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