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- People who attend college are slightly less likely to be politically moderate than those who don’t—but higher education affects men and women differently. peer-reviewed research published in PLOS One, an open access journal.
- The researchers found that college politically mobilizes women in general more than men. Colleges were also more likely to make women more liberal in the past than they are today.
- While men may become more politically aware in college, higher education does not make them more likely to be liberal or conservative, the research found.
Higher education often faces accusations of promoting too progressive a vision of the world, leading to homogenized thinking. Nearly half of adults, 47%, believe college makes people more politically liberal, compared to just 6% who say it makes people more conservative. 2022 YouGov survey.
Politicians often repeat this claim as they work to eliminate aspects of higher education with which they disagree. In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized his state’s public colleges and is working on remaking them more closely mirroring conservative institutions such as Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a private Christian liberal arts school.
But new research in PLOS One “cautions against viewing college as a uniform and overall leveling experience.” It shows changes in the influence of higher education over time.
“We found that people who go to college are a little less likely to be moderates. They’re more likely to have a political position, but it doesn’t look like there’s a liberalizing tendency,” said Stephen Vaisey, a sociology professor. at Duke University and co-authored the research. “If there was a time when college liberalized dramatically, it was in the past, and it was especially for women.”
The researchers found that twice as many women as men born in 1933 became more liberal during college. It’s possible that during this time, when the gender gap was at its height, college exposed women to more liberal social ideas that they wouldn’t have learned about otherwise, the research said. The divergence between women and men narrowed starting in the 1944 birth cohort and finally stabilized two decades later.
In the early 20th century, students were a bit more liberal after graduating from college. But since 1944, men have simply been less moderate and have increasingly taken sides on both ends of the political spectrum.
It might appear that today’s college graduates are disproportionately liberal because left-leaning students are more likely to enroll in the first place, Vaisey said.
The research sought to eliminate self-selection bias — when people rank themselves in a group, such as college enrollment — by considering student factors such as their religion and hometown, in addition to their parents’ highest level of education and the prestige of their fathers’ jobs. .
The findings confirm that the effects of college on political beliefs are not as straightforward as some believe, according to Alyssa Rockenbach, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State University. Rockenbach specializes in the intersectional identities of college students.
“The impact of college on people’s lives is almost always more complex than assumed,” she said in an email. “The notion that colleges liberalize students—or that higher education is a bastion of liberal ideologies—has been used to dismiss all that higher education contributes to society and has underpinned efforts to undermine the critical social role and autonomy of higher education.”