Approval of Gay Marriage Is Greater Among College Freshmen Than Americans at Large

March 16, 2010

College students who describe themselves as politically "far right" arrive on campuses across the country supporting legal same-sex marriage significantly more than do conservative Republicans nationwide, according to new data released by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Twenty-four percent of the most conservative college students say that same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status, according to the institute's most recent survey of freshmen, conducted last summer and fall. In the nation at large, 14 percent of conservative Republicans support gay marriage, according to a survey conducted last year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

National debate over same-sex marriage, including the first gay marriages in the nation's capital this month, prompted the Higher Education Research Institute to prepare the new data, which were presented last week in Chicago at the annual conference of Naspa—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. The institute plans to publish a special report this spring.

Greater Acceptance by the Young

Over all, 65 percent of the college freshmen surveyed last fall supported same-sex marriage, compared with 58 percent of Americans 18 to 29 years old and 39 percent of the population nationwide, according to the Pew research groups' study.

Support for gay marriage has increased generally in the past decade. In 2000, 56 percent of entering college students backed it. Four years later, freshmen were 57 percent supportive at the time they enrolled, and by graduation, 69 percent of that entering class supported gay marriage, according to the UCLA research institute.

The freshman and national surveys both asked people to place themselves in one of five categories along the political spectrum. In comparisons across those categories, which were roughly similar but not identical, college students showed significantly more support for same-sex marriage than the population at large in four groups, including a 24-percentage-point difference in the center: "Middle of the road" freshmen were 68 percent supportive, while independents nationally were 44 supportive (see table).

In the center-right category, which the freshman survey labeled "conservative" and the national poll called "moderate and liberal Republican," the trend didn't hold. Thirty-two percent of freshmen and 36 percent of the national population in those groups said that they supported gay marriage. The margin of error for the Pew survey, with 4,000 responses, is two percentage points; the freshman survey's larger sample, with about 220,000 responses last fall, makes its margin of error negligible.

Over time, college students' support for same-sex marriage has grown more significantly on the left and in the center. Since 1997, when the freshman survey introduced this question, support has gone up 21 percentage points among the most liberal students, 16 percentage points in the middle, and two percentage points on the far right.

Racial and Religious Groups

The Higher Education Research Institute also broke down freshmen's support for same-sex marriage by sex, race, and religious affiliation. Women were 72 percent supportive and men 57 percent supportive, compared with national rates of 43 percent for women and 34 percent for men, according to the Pew survey.

Among freshmen, Hispanic students were 69 percent supportive, white students 65 percent supportive, and black students 53 percent supportive. Support among those groups in the population at large was lower: 45 percent among Hispanics, 39 percent among whites, and 26 percent among blacks.

Students who identified themselves as Jewish, Buddhist, or nonreligious were most supportive, with at least 87 percent in each group favoring legal same-sex marriage. Sixty-six percent of Catholic students and 58 percent of Muslim students expressed support, as did between 50 and 75 percent of students affiliated with most Protestant Christian denominations.

Nationally, 27 percent of Protestants and 45 percent of Catholics support legal same-sex marriage.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, an advocacy group for same-sex marriage, attributes college students' relatively high and growing levels of support to their personal experience. "Young people who know gay people, talk with them, and examine why marriage matters in the lives of real people move in support," he said. The organization recently hired a former organizer for Youth for Obama to reach out to college students.

An opponent of same-sex marriage said he wasn't concerned by the survey's findings. "Typically, across the board, young people tend to be more liberal or progressive," said Glenn Stanton, director of family-formation studies at Focus on the Family, a conservative group. "As they get older ... they really start to see the world in a different way."

Still, Mr. Stanton travels to college campuses to promote his views on traditional marriage. College students' support for same-sex marriage is weak, he said. "It's a softer kind of conviction, not well formed or articulated in their minds."

John H. Pryor, director of the Higher Education Research Institute's Cooperative Institutional Research Program, which runs the freshman survey, hopes the new findings promote more open discussion on campuses. For example, he said, imagine a college where a gay first-year student asks to switch his assigned roommate from somebody who identifies as conservative.

"The staff there," he wrote in an e-mail message, "might encourage him to open a dialogue with this prospective roommate."