Student Role in Politics

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Making a Difference, Not a Statement: College Students and Politics, Volunteering, and an Agenda for America Peter D. Hart Research Associates 1724 Connecticut Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20009 April 2001

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From February 24 to March 2, Hart Research surveyed a national representative sample of 809 students in four-year colleges and universities; this research, conducted on behalf of the Panetta Institute, gauges students’ views of and involvement in civics and politics. This report summarizes our key findings. The margin of error is ± 3.5% for the overall sample and higher for specific subgroups.

Forty years ago, something began to stir on the nation’s campuses. In March 1961, President John F. Kennedy, sensing the potential idealism of the nation’s youth, signed an executive order creating the Peace Corps, and a few months later, the first cohort of Peace Corps volunteers embarked for Africa. That same year, college students traveled south to join the Freedom Rides, risking life and limb for the civil rights cause. It was the beginning of a youth movement that ultimately changed the face of America, as it touched everything from race relations to women’s rights to war and peace. Four decades later, could students once again provide the energy and idealism that drive social and political change? The results of our national survey among college students suggest that the potential is indeed there. Indeed, the civil rights and women’s movements are now a source of inspiration. And if this potential is realized, this generation is clearly poised to move the country in a progressive direction. In their issue preferences and political leanings, the youth of Generation Y embrace a progressive agenda while rejecting the anti-government cynicism of their Generation X forerunners. Yet, only a fraction of this great potential has been realized so far. Unlike their predecessors four decades ago, today’s college students enjoy the legal right to vote, but only a small minority of Americans age 18 to 21 exercised that right in 2000. These young people care about the issues of the day, yet few believe that working on a political campaign or contacting their congressional representative, for example, can help make society better. They say they want to contribute to their society and make a difference, but most spurn government service as a career option. Their values and priorities seem disconnected from their level of political engagement. Certainly, neither presidential candidate managed to connect with this generation. Today’s students are simultaneously progressive and apolitical; they embrace many government solutions, but evince little interest in government itself. Nevertheless, the survey results indicate that it is possible to get college students involved in the nation’s political life. Indeed, today’s generation of students is like tinder awaiting a spark. New political leadership, making the right kind of appeal and challenging young people to get involved as President Kennedy did in 1961, could once again awaken a powerful response on the nation’s campuses.

I. College Students’ Current Outlook
1. Today’s college students are progressive in their views. College students’ agenda for the nation is strongly progressive. Among all the policy priorities tested in the survey, the top three are improving schools by hiring teachers and reducing class size (85% very top or high priority), strengthening and preserving Social Security (76%), and providing assistance to low-income families (73%). The three lowest priorities are strengthening the military (34%), reducing the size of government (23%), and allowing oil exploration in the Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge (21%).

Looking back at our history, today’s college students identify with progressive social movements. Overwhelming majorities feel that the civil rights (89%) and women’s rights (78%) movements did a great deal or quite a bit to...
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