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New National Survey of College Student Political Behavior & Attitudes

What do college students think is “the most important issue facing the country today?” In a survey of 874 college students at Pomona College, Bowdoin College (ME), College of the Holy Cross (MA) and Wellesley College (MA), 24.8 percent responded the war in Iraq/ending the war in Iraq; 14.5 percent said the economy and economic issues; 7.7 percent cited the environment and climate change; and 7.2 percent cited health care. Another 6.8 percent said foreign policy or international relations.

The focus of the survey, conducted between February 15 and the end of March this year, was the students’ political behavior and concerns of students at liberal arts colleges, with particular attention to issues relevant for the 2008 election.

The most surprising data came from questions about attitudes toward specific political issues and political media consumption.

  • Only 11.3 percent approve of the way President is handling his job.
  • Two-thirds (68%) of students believe that the war in Iraq has made the United States less safe from terrorism.
  • More than 80 percent (85.2%) of the students support the rights of gay couples to marry.
  • 90.4 percent agree that homosexual couples should be legally permitted to adopt children.
  • There is strong support (82.3%) for a program to give illegal immigrants the right to stay in the United States if they pay a fine and meet certain requirements.
  • Three-fourths (77.5%) of the students rate economic conditions in the United States today as “fair” (53%) or “poor” (24.5%).
  • Close to three-fourths (70.8%) say that the lack of health insurance among many Americans is a “very serious” problem.
  • Somewhat more than half (53.0%) say that the energy situation in the United States today is “very serious.”
  • More than three-quarters (77.1%) of students think there is too little government regulation and involvement in the area of environmental protection, and 44.0% rate the condition of the natural environment in the world today as poor or very poor.

Among the students, 80 percent were registered to vote, though only 57.9 percent had ever voted in a local, state or national election. Those interested in public affairs “most of the time” were 32.8 percent, but 40.6 percent said they were “very much interested” in the current presidential campaign, with another 48.5 percent saying they were “somewhat interested.” In political affiliation, 56.4 percent reported they were Democrats, 14.8 percent said they were Republicans and 22 percent were independents.

In terms of media consumption, despite doomsday predictions forecasting the demise of newspapers, 80 percent of students at these four colleges reported reading about world or national news in newspapers either hard copy or online once per week or more frequently.

Almost half (45.2%) watch world or national news programs on television at least once per week. About one-third of the students report watching political satire shows (34.9%) and a similar proportion view political blogs or Web pages (31.4%) once a week or more. Slightly more than one-fourth (27.1%) listen to radio programs devoted to politics or current events, and only 7.9 percent watch political interview programs.

Because the four colleges draw from a national pool of students, this sample consists of undergraduates from 49 states plus the District of Columbia. (Only Wyoming is not represented). The state with the highest representation is Massachusetts (21.6%), followed by New York (12.9%) and California (9.3%). Less than three percent of the students report a permanent residence outside of the United States, yet 10 percent were born outside of the United States. The students range in age from 18 to 25, with 72.8 percent between ages 19 and 21.

The survey was designed by a team of faculty members from each of the four colleges: Royce Singleton, Jr., Professor of Sociology, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA; Seth Ovadia, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME; Jill Grigsby, Richard Steele Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Pomona College, Claremont, CA; and Joseph Swingle, Professor of Sociology, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. Kerry Strand, Professor of Sociology, Hood College, Frederick, MD also participated in the research design.

The interviewers were students enrolled in survey research methods or quantitative analysis courses within sociology departments at the four colleges. The course instructors obtained lists of all students who were taking classes during the spring 2008 semester on campus (not studying abroad or on leave) and created a random sample from this list. For the total sample, the sampling error is plus or minus 3 percent.