Political Division Soars on Campus, Survey Finds

The U.S. presidential election last year left its mark on college freshmen, who are more politically polarized than they’ve been in at least half a century, says an annual report released on Monday.

Fewer first-year students than ever — 42 percent — described their politics as “middle of the road,” while 36 percent considered themselves liberal or far left and 22 percent conservative or far right.

The survey, administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, also found that a gender gap among freshmen is at its highest since the survey started, in 1966. About 41 percent of women, the highest percentage ever, identified as liberal or far left, compared with 29 percent of men.

This year’s survey also explored differences in how students view their tolerance of one another. About 87 percent of left-leaning students said they had “strong” or “somewhat” strong tolerance for people with different beliefs, compared with 82 percent of centrist students and about 68 percent of right-leaning students.

The findings are based on responses from 137,456 first-year students at 184 American colleges and universities. Last year the survey found that freshmen were the class most likely to participate in a protest since the survey began.

Students are worried about the cost of college.

Fifty-six percent of the freshmen said they had concerns about how they would pay for college:

  • 66 percent of women said they were either somewhat or very worried, versus 34 percent of men.
  • 22 percent of black students and 25 percent of Hispanic students said they had “major” concerns, as opposed to 9 percent of white students.
  • 56 percent of first-generation students said cost was “very important,” compared with 45 percent of other students.
  • 58 percent of first-generation students said financial-aid offers were “very important,” compared with 44 percent of other students.

Students care about their mental and emotional health.

Less than half of the freshmen, 47 percent, consider their mental health to be above average in relation to their peers — a first in the survey’s history.

  • 12 percent said they had “frequently” felt depressed in the past year, and 14 percent said there was a “very good chance” they would seek counseling.
  • 35 percent said they felt anxious “frequently” in comparison with 80 percent of students who have psychological disorders.

Other key takeaways.

  • 57 percent of Latino freshmen said they were the first in their families to attend college, a greater proportion than any other ethnic or racial group surveyed.
  • 41 percent of freshmen reported they were on social media for at least six hours per week, higher than the previous 27 percent of 2014.
  • More freshmen said they attend college within 10 miles of home — 13 percent compared with 11 percent last year.
  • More freshmen plan to live with their parents — 19 percent compared with 15 percent last year.

Use our interactive graphic about the survey to see how students’ attitudes and self-images have changed since the 1960s.

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