The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Political polarization among college freshmen is at a record high, as is the share identifying as ‘far left’

One factor that might be adding fuel to the campus speech wars: Colleges are more politically polarized today than they have been in more than four decades.

That is the implication of the 2016 Freshman Survey, produced by the University of California at Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute and released Monday. For decades, the survey has asked first-time, full-time freshmen how they describe their political views: far left, liberal, middle of the road, conservative or far right. Last fall, the lowest share on record, 42.3 percent, identified as middle of the road.

Additionally, the highest share on record identified as far left, though it’s still a small figure (4.2 percent).

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The shrinking of the middle is largely due to a recent rise in the share of women (who also represent a majority of college students) who identify as either liberal or far left. The share of female respondents, but not male respondents, who describe their political views this way was at an all-time high (41.1 percent for women, 28.9 percent for men). Left-wing views peaked for men way back in 1971, at 43.6 percent.

The share who labeled their political beliefs as either conservative or far right peaked in 2006 for women, and 1989 for men.

Another milestone was hit this year: the largest gender gap in self-reported liberalism to date (12.2 percentage points).

And before you blame colleges for liberal indoctrination, remember these were newly enrolled students, surveyed in the fall of their freshman year. That is, they arrived on campus with these political beliefs. For context, note also that the share of American adults overall who consider themselves liberal or very liberal has also been trending upward and last year was at a 24-year high, per Gallup.