2005 February 15 Tuesday
American College Students Becoming More Politically Polarized

The percentage of students who define themselves as "middle of the road" is declining and the percentages on the extremes are growing.

A record number of students define themselves at the political extremes of "far right" and "far left," according to the results of UCLA's annual survey of the nation's students entering undergraduate classes. The fall 2004 survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, finds that 3.4 percent of students consider themselves as "far left" and 2.2 percent as "far right."

"Although these percentages are small, the change between 2003 and 2004 numbers — concurrent with the presidential election year — reflects the largest one-year shift in students' political orientation in the 35 years that it has been included in the survey," said Linda J. Sax, UCLA associate professor of education and director of the survey.

Identification as either "liberal" (26.1 percent) or "conservative" (21.9 percent) is also up from last year. "Middle-of-the-road" remains the most popular category at 46.4 percent, but reaches its lowest point in more than 30 years, and marks a nearly four-percentage point drop since last year (50.3 percent in 2003). (See Figure 1.)

Now in its 39th year, the UCLA survey is the nation's longest running and most comprehensive assessment of student attitudes and plans. The survey serves as a resource for researchers, practitioners and policy makers throughout the world.

The 2004 freshman norms are based on the responses of 289,452 students at 440 of the nation's baccalaureate colleges and universities. The data have been statistically adjusted to reflect the responses of the 1.2 million first-time, full-time students entering four-year colleges and universities as freshmen in 2004.

It would be interesting to see break-downs on these trends by sex, race, ethnicity, parental income, and SAT scores. Are men more likely to be extreme than women? Probably. Also, since women are a growing percentage of college students is that shifting the results toward the political Left? Also, are political differences between men and women narrower in college and then wider as single women out in the work force raising kids alone find themselves with much different political interests?

The races are becoming more separated socially.

Recent declines in interaction patterns are also evident, with 67.8 percent of freshmen in 2004 stating that they frequently socialized with someone of a different racial/ethnic group in high school, a decline from 70 percent in 2001. Moreover, while 63.1 percent of entering freshmen report that chances are "very good" that they will socialize with someone of a different racial/ethnic background during college, the current figure is the lowest since the question's inclusion in the survey in 2000. "In an increasingly multicultural world, curricular and co‑curricular activities designed to improve students' knowledge and skills in this realm, such as diversity courses and inter-group dialogue, may be especially important," Hurtado said.

One would like to see this survey done on college seniors as well. How do their expectations match up with their eventual experiences? Which races are least likely to socialize with each other? My guess is that the greater the difference in cognitive ability (e.g. use the differences in SAT scores as a proxy) the less likely the races in a given college or university will socialize together. So a school that has smaller differences between the races in incoming classes will have lower self-segregation by race. People who are not on the same intellectual level are going to have less to talk about with each other.

Also, comparison with college seniors would be interesting in terms of how the college experience changes student attitudes. Though to be rigorous about it the same students who get interviewed as freshman should be re-interviewed as seniors. The differences in drop-out rates as a function of race, sex, and intellectual ability are going to cause average senior attitudes to differ from average freshman attitudes. Therefore given that some will drop out the original freshman answers should be saved and separately tabulated for drop-outs and non-drop-out to compare how they differed as freshmen.

I expect to see deepening differences in attitudes in the American population in the future for a number of reasons. First off, the differences in economic outcomes continue to widen. Also, the growth of large numbers of narrowly aimed media channels such as blogs and cable TV channels producing content for narrow demographic segments is reducing the amount of common experiences of the population. The more cable channels, talk radio programs (which are going to grow even more as satellite radio takes off), and internet sites the more people are going to dial in to hear and read the thoughts of like minds.

Immigration is another cause of a decrease in the feeling of common interests. Each major racial group performs at a different average level in school and achieves a different average level of success. Some ethnic and racial groups self-segregate while at the same time some groups literally flee from the presence of other groups. Increased mobility is allowing increased segregation. The term "cocooning" to refer to people who stay in their houses and in small social circles denotes another way that segregation is being put into practice.

A decline in the feeling of common interests can produce an effect similar to that of a snowball running down a hill getting bigger as it goes along. When people feel less common interests they will push for interests more narrowly their own. This will reduce the benefits they receive that they share in common with all and therefore reduce their feelings of loyalty and interest in institutions that span the entire society. Altruistic behaviors such as being willing to provide information such as eyewitness descriptions about crimes committed against others can be expected to decline in frequency.

Does anyone reading this agree or disagree with this assessment? Are there reasons why we can expect an increasing sense of sharing common interests? The only reason I can think of off the top of my head for a future growing sense of common interests is the images of disasters on TV. People can feel for earthquake and tsunami disasters better today because they can see the images from those disasters live and in color on TV.

It is not clear to me whether international trade increases or decreases the sense of shared common interests. Maybe it does both but in different directions to different segments of populations. Elites feel more in common but the lower classes feel less in common with their own elites or with the distant lower classes they compete with. Sound right or wrong to you?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 February 15 04:02 PM  Politics American Domestic

crush41 said at February 15, 2005 6:07 PM:

The growth of large numbers of narrowly aimed media channels such as blogs and cable TV channels producing content for narrow demographic segments is reducing the amount of common experiences of the population. The more cable channels, talk radio programs (which are going to grow even more as satellite radio takes off), and internet sites the more people are going to dial in to hear and read the thoughts of like minds.

Great analysis as usual. The election probably accentuated the decline in "middle of the road" respondents somewhat, but the trend is real. The growth of right-leaning information sources will continue to bolster the confidence of conservative students by providing insight/talking points to challenge liberal academia. And as class structures become more interactive (less lecture, more "discussion facilitation" and groupwork) students are going to be inclined to firmly take sides.

On the flipside, online course offerings are going to become commonplace (think of the cost-savings and general appeal of seeing a real-time lecture from your room--being "in class" five minutes after waking up). If secondary education was made private (and then individually subsidized equally per-student) this would be more predominant than it is now, but it's moving that direction anyway. This will enhance cocooning at a time when people are the most impressionable.

gcochran said at February 15, 2005 7:03 PM:

" right-leaning information sources "

The problem is that they have zero regard for the truth. I mean absolutely zero. Perhaps Iraq has been a test of their faith, like the fossils in the rocks - and they have passed with flying colors. Faith trumps facts in every instance. And they're low-class liars: people like John Lott can't cost very much.

It wasn't always this way. I can remember the time when conservative columnists didn't conntantly have to swallow and regurgitate crap of
Brobdingnagian proportions. But then I can rememeber when the Chinese party secretary was _crazier_ than the President of the United States.
Those were the days.

David N. St. John said at February 16, 2005 3:26 AM:

Randall -- you wrote, "So a school that has smaller differences between the races is incoming classes will have higher self-segregation by race." Did you mean to say, "lower self-segregation by race."?

crush41 said at February 16, 2005 8:41 AM:

The problem is that they have zero regard for the truth. I mean absolutely zero.

That's a sweeping statement. I consider parapundit a "right-leaning" source with a meticulous method of going after the truth. And it's not any less tendentious from the left--Eason Jordan and Dan Rather have been more blatantly dishonest than anything I've heard from a major source on the right. There are plenty of conservatives who oppose Bush and the Iraq war as well. There is more advocacy on the part of the media--or at least it's easier to see now that it comes from so many viewpoints instead of the groupthink that my parents grew up with--but that's the price to pay for free choice.

Randall Parker said at February 16, 2005 8:45 AM:


Thanks for catching that. Yes, I meant lower self-segregation by race. I fixed it.

gcochran said at February 16, 2005 9:20 AM:

I was not thinking of Randall Parker . I was thinking of National Review, of the Weekly Standard, of tech central station, of a lot of crummy sources that unfortunately have a lot more patrons than Randall does.

Is the New York Times less bad than, say, The Standard. Yes. It certainly has its blind spots - I've hated them for decades. But 'movement conservatives' are far worse: if we caught Bush with a live boy, a dead girl, and an armadillo, they'd be telling us that it's a strong man's weakness, that we all secretly have a yen for a well-turned snout, within 24 hours.

Of course the media as a whole stink. The great majority, for example, believed the Administration's crap about Iraq being a military threat. Really they did. Some because they were on the Republican 'team' and would have supported anything up to the invasion of Antarctica, many more becausew they simply don't knw anything about modeern military technology. I knew it was malarkey, many of my friends in defense (all Republicans) knew: I can hardly think of a single prominent member of the talking classes that knew.

Proborders said at February 16, 2005 10:07 AM:

About a third of the 2004 freshmen surveyed favored abolishing the death penalty.  The last time support among freshmen for abolishing the death penalty was this high or higher was in 1980.  The statement '"there is too much concern in the courts for the rights of criminals"' was agreed to by 58.1% of the 2004 freshmen surveyed.  However, this was the lowest percentage since 1976.       

A record percentage of freshmen surveyed (22.7%) "feel that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in America."  For the 1993 freshmen surveyed the comparable percentage was 12.5%.  Of course, "differences exist across racial groups."

Source for the above info. and quotes is "Political Orientations of the Nation's Freshmen Are More Polarized, UCLA Survey Reveals," which can be viewed at http://www.newsroom.ucla.edu/page.asp?RelNum=5784.

Thus, it seems that there may be proportionately more liberal and more conservative voters in the future (and fewer moderate voters).

Randall, it seems that women began to outnumber men as “total first-time [college] freshmen” in 1976 (see http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d02/dt181.asp).

razib said at February 16, 2005 11:22 AM:

i have to say that i agree with greg about the right-wing media. back in college i would have preferred to read 'NATIONAL REVIEW' over 'THE NATION' because, as tom selleck would say, 'i found something original and insightful in issue.' now that conservatives have a lot of political power though they are just schilling for the status quo just like the Left did. and belly ache all people want to about the 'MSM', but content wise, they beat the blogosphere and the right-wing media by a long shot. they are biased, but there is also lots of nuts & bolts factual reporting that you won't get from clearly political sources. if people want to see what happens to the media becomes highly political and open about biases, check out england. aside from 'THE FINANCIAL TIMES' all the broadsheets are basically tabloids from what i know....

John S Bolton said at February 16, 2005 6:48 PM:

It is to be expected that community of values will break down the more rapidly, the more aggressively the leadership of society tries to have us believe that diversity is strength and wealth. Those who want war and dictatorship have great power to gain by polarizing the population over racial and ethnic competition. There could hardly be an official who doesn't clearly calculate that intercommunal conflict must increase each year, through the explosive combination of bringing in more than a million third worlders, and at the same time, having affirmative action programs of this kind. The relevant new aspect is the multiyear lack of jobs for young people out of school. The students know that society has room to bring in foreigners in huge numbers, and quota positions for many disadvantaged minorities, but increasingly reduced opportunity for majority youth. The depraved left squeals with delight over this squeezeout; taunting the majority youth over it, and calls them sore losers preemptively. This is the explosive mix that our officials and professoriate are counting on; for polarization, and for what comes after that. By then, someone will say America is not a human society, but a race war, and they will be right.

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