How we did our research
IDEALS asked 3,486 college seniors to describe their observations of faculty members’ politics. Of these, 49 percent reported that faculty members expressed politically liberal views “frequently” or “all the time,” while only 9 percent said the same about faculty members with conservative views.
Are students under pressure to change their views?
Only 10 percent of students overall reported that they sensed any pressure to align with their professors’ politics. However, conservative students reported feeling more pressure than did liberal students.
But that varies by major. Conservative students in arts, humanities and religion majors, those in health majors (e.g., nursing, medicine, pharmacy, therapy) and those who double major in any two disciplines were more likely to say they felt pressured, whereas liberal students were more likely to report feeling pressure if they majored in social science (e.g., anthropology, political science, psychology, sociology, social work), education (e.g., elementary education, secondary education) or business.
Why? Certain kinds of courses may be more likely to explore hot-button issues that would let these different kinds of students feel at odds with their professors. For instance, health courses explore issues such as abortion and universal health care, where conservative students could feel uncomfortable. And business courses tend to be taught by more conservative faculty members, which could leave liberal students feeling uncomfortable.
When students feel that pressure, do they change their views?
Of the thousands of students we surveyed, 47.1 percent reported that they had changed their political leaning during college. Of these, 30.3 percent said they became more liberal, while 16.8 percent became more conservative. When looking at overall proportions, however, the changes were more modest. The proportion of “liberal” and “very liberal” students grew by five percentage points and four percentage points, respectively, with movement away from conservative and moderate leanings. This means that students were not abandoning their political party entirely so much as their political identification (i.e., liberal or conservative) was strengthening or weakening.
So did that sense of faculty pressure actually push students to change their political leanings? Not significantly. Of the 10 percent of students overall who reported feeling pressured “frequently” or “all the time” to align with their professors’ political views, 50 percent of those students changed their political leaning by the end of their senior year. That’s only slightly higher than those who experienced pressure “never,” “rarely” or “occasionally.”
When we break that down by political leaning, about the same proportion of students — 29 to 30 percent — say they became more liberal in college, whether or not they felt any pressure from faculty members. By contrast, among students who said they felt political pressure from faculty members “frequently” or “all the time,” a slightly larger proportion did become conservative, compared with those who felt less pressure.
Conservative faculty members may influence their students more than liberal professors do.
So what have we learned?
Although many commentators worry that professors are pushing their agenda on students, the vast majority of students — 90 percent — say they do not feel pressure to shift their views to align with those of their instructors. Whether they feel pressure depends in part on their chosen course of study.
Conservative students more often perceive pressure than liberal students do. But what do students mean by “pressure”? Do students of different political leanings mean different things by “pressure”? For example, is the science professor teaching about rising sea levels as a result of human-made carbon emissions espousing a “liberal view” or an established scientific fact?
Perhaps most counterintuitively, political pressure in the classroom is not driving every student to become more liberal, but it has nonpartisan results. Some students may become more conservative, especially if they take courses with a conservative bent.
This fall, the most polarized freshman class in half a century will begin its senior year of college in a highly contentious political year. Faculty members help shape the campus political environment. The Institute for Democracy and Higher Education has consistently found that high-quality political discussions in the classroom that promote an open and respectful exchange of ideas and consideration of dissenting or unpopular views are key to a healthy political environment.
Alyssa N. Rockenbach is a professor and alumni distinguished graduate professor of higher education at North Carolina State University and co-principal investigator of IDEALS.
Matthew J. Mayhew (@MattJMayhewPhD) is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher professor of educational administration at Ohio State University and co-principal investigator of IDEALS.
Kevin Singer (@kevinsinger0) is a PhD student in higher education at North Carolina State University and a research associate for IDEALS.
Laura S. Dahl is an assistant professor of education at North Dakota State University.