College freshmen more liberal than ever, UCLA survey finds

A new national survey claims that the current crop of college freshmen is the most liberal in decades, and isn’t shy about making that liberalism known through campus activism.

According to the 2015 edition of The American Freshman, a comprehensive poll of first-year college students conducted annually by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at UCLA since 1966, the 2015 freshman class has the highest proportion of liberals observed in over four decades, and is about half again as likely to participate in protests or demonstrations as its immediate predecessor.

“Student activism seems to be experiencing a revival, and last fall’s incoming freshman class appears more likely than any before it to take advantage of opportunities to participate in this part of the political process,” CIRP Director Kevin Eagan said in a press release. “If this broader commitment to community and political engagement manifests into action, particularly over the next year, college students have the potential to play a critical role in upcoming elections.”

Of the 141,189 full-time freshmen at 199 four-year colleges and universities interviewed for the survey, 59.8 percent self-identified as likely voters and 39.8 percent have ambitions to become community leaders. Additionally, 8.5 percent said there is a “very good chance” that they will participate in student protests over the course of their matriculation, a full 2.9 percentage point increase compared to 2014.

UCLA speculates that the spike in student activism was driven, at least in part, by the surge in racial demonstrations on campuses in recent months, most notably at the University of Missouri.

[RELATED: MAP: ‘Stand with Mizzou’ protests spread to campuses across the country]

The survey tends to support that conclusion, revealing that while 16 percent of black students and 10.2 percent of Latino students say they are likely to join a protest movement, the same holds for just 7.1 percent of whites, 6 percent of Asians, and 5.8 percent of Native Americans.

Students also placed a greater emphasis on “helping to promote racial understanding” than in previous years, with 41.2 percent of current freshmen rating it as “very important” or “essential,” but were once again stratified along ethnic lines. The lowest level of support came from white students, 33.6 percent of whom considered the issue important, compared to 63.8 percent of black students.

A majority also expressed support for affirmative action policies for the first time this year, with 52.3 percent of incoming freshmen agreeing that “students from disadvantaged social backgrounds should be given preferential treatment in the college admissions process,” an increase of 3.4 percentage points over last year, and 10.4 percentage points higher than in 2012.

“Collectively, the findings suggest that more students are committed to social justice,” Eagan told The Los Angeles Times, clarifying that “we certainly see students embracing more of the progressive perspectives.”

Indeed, while respondents expressed a stronger inclination toward both sides of the political spectrum than in past years, the increase skewed heavily to the left according to both general and specific measures.

Overall, 33.5 percent of respondents identified as “liberal” or “far left” this year, which is not only 1.8 percentage points higher than in 2014, but is in fact the highest ratio of left-leaning students observed by the study since the height of the Watergate scandal in 1973, when 36.4 percent described themselves as liberal.

The proportion of conservative students, conversely, rose only slightly compared to last year—from 21 percent to 21.6 percent—and fell far short of the 25.6 percent high-water mark set in the 2006 survey.

On specific political issues, too, this year’s freshman class displays a pronounced liberal streak, coming out in favor of both marijuana legalization and pro-choice abortion policies.

Among current freshmen, 56.4 percent support legalizing marijuana, representing a jump of 7.3 percentage points since the question was last posed to students in 2011. Although the survey did not specify that the question was referring to recreational use per se, that seems to have been the intent, as UCLA makes a point of noting that four states have legalized recreational marijuana use in the intervening years.

The results were far more striking with regard to abortion, with 63.5 percent of respondents opining that “abortion should be legal,” including 30.8 percent who “strongly” agreed with the statement.

Although the attitudes toward marijuana laws reported in the survey are generally in line with national poll results showing a slight majority favoring legalization, the students were significantly more pro-choice than the general population, which tends to be more-or-less evenly divided on the issue when it is divorced from specifics.

Even so, Eagan told The Times that it remains very much an open question whether the survey’s findings will “translate to action,” given the historical unreliability of young voters, who have the lowest participating rate of any age group.

“If they organize, protest, and show up at the polls, they may have a role in shaping the public discourse on issues related to social inequality, equity, and discrimination,” Eagan speculated. “By contrast, if these students do not follow through on their intentions and goals, the enthusiastic support we're seeing for addressing social justice concerns will likely diminish, eliminating the potential for a broader impact in politics or American life.”

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