Study: College tilts students to the left

New research shows college students tend to shift to more liberal positions on issues like gay marriage, abortion and religion from the time they are freshmen through their junior year.

According to the study, done by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute, the changes have less to do with the opinions of students’ professors, who generally lean left politically, than with the influence of their peer groups.

Adam Schiffer, an assistant professor in the political science department, said although some students come to college with very strong opinions that don’t change at all, most students’ ideologies evolve to the left while in college.

“College campuses are often more liberal environments than where people grow up,” Schiffer said. “Exposure to a diversity of opinions will often lead people to realize that their opinions aren’t the only valid ones.”

Finding figures that are representative of the entire college population is difficult because student bodies differ so much, however, Schiffer said there is reason to believe studies like this are accurate.

“The findings are scientifically valid and done by well-respected institutions,” Schiffer said.

UCLA has been tracking attitudes of college freshmen for more than 40 years, according to the HERI Web site. This particular study surveyed 15,000 students who entered 136 schools in 2004, and the results were weighted to represent the full college population.

On the topic of abortion, 52 percent of the college freshmen surveyed indicated that they supported legalized abortion. Two years later, 60 percent of the same group said it supported legalized abortion.

The percentage of students supporting legal marital status for gay couples increased from 54 percent to 66 percent after two years at college. The percentage supporting laws prohibiting homosexual relationships fell from 31.5 percent to 21.5 percent.

The study also showed the percentage of students who never attend religious services almost doubled to 37.5 percent.

One exception to the leftward trend was attitudes toward the death penalty, which a majority of the students surveyed continued to support.

Hayley Price, a junior kinesiology major, said she considers herself conservative, and that hasn’t changed since she was a freshman. Although her professors and friends may have different views, she said neither group has swayed her political beliefs.

“A lot of them aren’t afraid to share their opinions, but I’ve never been nervous to speak about my own,” Price said of her professors.

She also said that most of her friends share her political beliefs.

“I have one really good friend who is way liberal, but she doesn’t influence my views at all, Price said.

Kayla Coburn, a senior speech-language pathology major, said when she was a freshman she was liberal, which hasn’t changed throughout her time at college. She said her professors and her friends have strengthened the views she already had.

“Some of my professors have enforced it, but I don’t think they would have changed my opinions either way,” Coburn said. “I think I only have one conservative friend, and it’s definitely made me strengthen my views and I’m more sure of what I believe in now.”

Sarah Meeder, a sophomore ballet major, said she also considers herself liberal, which hasn’t changed since she entered college. She said her professors haven’t really impacted her political views, but class discussions have.

“Hearing other peoples’ opinions have made my points of view stronger,” Meeder said.

She also said she doesn’t discuss politics or issues such as gay marriage and abortion with her friends very often.

According to the study, students, especially women, tend to move somewhat back to the right politically after graduation. Fewer students considered themselves middle-of-the-road, and after graduation they dispersed about equally to the left and right politically.