Is Trump Turning Students Against Conservatives?

In 2016, American undergraduates who had started college in the fall of 2015 (more than 7,000 of them at 122 institutions) said that their opinions of both conservatives and liberals had dramatically improved during their first year of college. Half of all students had already become more appreciative of conservatives; nearly half had become more appreciative of liberals.

But when surveyed again in their final year of college, those same students had changed their minds. Across almost all religious groups, the appreciation that these undergraduates had gained for conservatives had been “nearly or totally erased” since early 2016. In fact, by the time the class of 2019 graduated, its students from every major religious group—including Mormons and evangelicals!—were more likely to report a high opinion of liberals than of conservatives.

These are the (not yet published) findings of researchers running a project called IDEALS (the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey), who discuss their work today in an essay at Religion & Politics.

Matthew Mayhew, Kevin Singer, Alyssa Rockenbach, and Laura Dahl write that “students of all faiths in the class of 2019 were warming up to political conservatives at the end of their first year in college, which was during the final year of Obama’s presidency. Now, three years into Trump’s presidency, conservatives can only wonder what could have been.”

The researchers blame students’ plummeting approval for conservatives on “the Trump effect.”

Allow me to make some observations of my own.

I do think the “Trump effect” explanation for these findings is basically plausible. It is also consistent with my experiences working in higher education.

There has been a dramatic shift in student political temperament since early 2016 on the campuses where I have worked, and it does seem to be connected (in various ways) with the Trump phenomenon. Undergraduates in 2020 tend to identify conservatism with Donald Trump, in my experience, and they tend to hold conservatism in much lower regard than the undergraduates I taught a decade ago. But for the purpose of evaluating the IDEALS study as a piece of research, I do approach the idea with some caution.

First, it’s worth nothing that there seem to be two interesting exceptions to the general pattern picked up in the IDEALS surveys. Uniquely among religious groups, Jewish students’ high opinions of conservatives (but not liberals) remained flat in their first year of college before declining. At the same time, Muslim students’ high opinions of conservatives rose dramatically in their first year (as did most groups’) but then remained essentially flat—again, uniquely among religious groups—and relatively high: tied, in fact, with evangelical and mainline Christians’ high opinions of conservatives.

The former finding seems basically consistent with the “Trump effect,” for reasons the researchers point out. But the latter, I think, raises questions about what else may have been going on too during those later three years.

Second, it’s unfortunate that the class of 2019 was the first cohort of students examined by the IDEALS project. It’s possible—not necessarily likely, but possible—that previous cohorts of students would have displayed a similarly shoe-shaped curve in their high opinions of conservatives over four years in college, despite presumably not being influenced by the “Trump effect” the same way. (It’s also possible that more recent cohorts of students would display the same curve too, which would be similarly instructive.)

That, of course, would raise other questions if it turned out to be true.

For example, is it possible that college simply gives undergraduates a positive impression of conservatives in the first year but then gives them a negative view in later years? I’m not sure it’s the most likely explanation for the IDEALS results, but I do think it’s possible.

Perhaps students in their first year tend to meet lots of students from other political perspectives, and perhaps, in their first year, they’re also in the mood for intellectual exploration, encouraged by first-year seminars, consensus-building survey courses, and other congenial academic and social environments, only to find as time goes by that the shine of conservativism (for whatever reason) wears off while the shine of liberalism doesn’t.

(Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that something like that does happen, although I doubt it would explain all of the decline the IDEALS researchers have observed.)

It’s also conceivable, of course, that the alleged left-wing indoctrination that many conservatives see happening on campus simply doesn’t start (or start showing results) until year two or later. Now, I’m not sure why or how that would be the case. I’m also not sure how it fits with the fact that opinions of conservatives and liberals both rose in roughly equal measure during the class of 2019’s first year. Or how it fits with the fact that most students already reported higher opinions of liberals than of conservatives around the time they started college, suggesting at least a small flaw in the left-wing-indoctrination thesis. But it’s conceivably possible, and the IDEALS project doesn’t settle the issue.

Third, for these and other reasons, I think it might be instructive to see the results of the same survey taken at other points in the students’ college careers, to see whether the decline after 2016 was steady, sudden, or uneven.

Anyway, where does this leave us?

The first-year IDEALS results, at least, are consistent with other research in the recent past that seems to show that college academic life has (or used to have?) a basically moderating effect on students’ politics, even as students reshaped each other’s opinions outside of class. It’s probably also consistent with research showing that conservative students in 2009-2013 (contrary to cherished myth) had very positive experiences with most of their college courses. It also seems consistent with research showing that, at least until 2016, a college education (especially among whites) has been a much less reliable predictor of an American’s political affiliation than various demographic factors are—suggesting that college tends to open minds rather than close them.

And the IDEALS findings are probably especially consistent with Trump-era research suggesting that conservative students do self-censor more than liberals do, but that they are mostly afraid of the judgment of their peers, not their professors. Overwhelmingly, conservative undergraduates (at UNC Chapel Hill) in 2019 said their professors encourage them to speak up in class.

All in all, I do think the IDEALS research, when taken together with other research, suggests that today’s American undergraduates are dramatically changing their own minds (and/or each other’s minds) about the nature of conservatism and liberalism in the Trump era.

Oh, and before I wrap up, there’s one more observation I want to make: The 122 institutions covered in the IDEALS survey include dozens of conservative-leaning religious colleges and southern and midwestern state universities, as well as colleges that fit a more stereotypical liberal profile. The political shift that’s happening for American undergraduates is not limited to the left wing of academia.