This past year, colleges across the country, from Yale to Towson to Claremont McKenna, were rocked by protests. Students upset over racial issues took over the president’s office at Princeton, demanded the resignation of Ithaca College’s president, and forced out the chancellor and president of the entire University of Missouri system.
And this spring may be even more intense: Researchers at UCLA are predicting a continued rise in campus demonstrations based on the results of their annual freshman survey, which found students’ interest in political engagement at historically high levels.
It was yet another sign that many students are not waiting for social change — they are forcing it to happen, campus by campus.
Almost one in ten said they expected to participate in protests — the highest it has been in the 50 years the survey has been given.
The students most likely to protest are black students, one in six of whom said they expect to demonstrate.
“The protests on college campuses as well as communities in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere really resonated with freshmen,” said said Kevin Eagan, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. the largest longitudinal study of college students in the U.S. — it reaches more than 140,000 full-time first-years at nearly 200 four-year institutions.
More than 41 percent of all students said that helping promote racial understanding is either an essential or a very important goal for them.
It wasn’t just concern about race: The high cost of college, student debt and sexual assault are also topics of intense interest, that could be flash points for student demonstrations.
He said they found substantial gains in interest in political and community engagement on almost every question in the survey that related to those issues.
“It’s incumbent on administrators to have some dialogue with students — to make sure they’re squarely considering students’ issues,” he said, “and have strategies to improve the overall campus climate.”
It also means college students have the potential to play a critical role in upcoming elections, he noted.
And college freshmen have been trending leftward, politically: The last time students identifying as far right or conservative outnumbered the percentage calling themselves far left or liberal was back in 1981. In the decades since then that conservative group has held in the low-twenties range, and the group describing themselves as “middle of the road” has eroded. Over the last 35 years, that middle ground has shifted further left.
In the 2015 survey, a third of students described themselves as liberal or far left, the most since 1973.
A little more than one in five said they were conservative or far right, down from one in four a decade ago.
Well over half think marijuana should be legal, and nearly two-thirds think abortion should be.
Forty percent said they want to become community leaders — the highest ever — and more than a fifth said they “hope to influence the political structure.”
And they plan to vote: Sixty percent said there was a very good chance they would vote during college — up from 50 percent in the 2014 survey.