Why Are Colleges So Liberal?

Is America’s university system a repressive thought factory bent on infecting vulnerable young minds with virulent socialist propaganda as part of a sweeping radical leftist global conspiracy aimed at reducing the United States to a totalitarian communist dictatorship? And if so, how come they never mention that in any of the brochures?

Why Are Colleges So Liberal?

Objectively speaking…no, America’s universities are not in league with the mainstream media, the Democratic Party, and Satan to topple Western capitalism, at least not in any formal way. In fact, with an annual revenue of more than $580 billion dollars, the college and university industry is the 15th largest industry by market size in the United States. As a collective business, its socialist bonafides are pretty flimsy.

But what about the ideologies that breeze through the open airs of the nation’s universities? Do America’s professors lean to the left? Do campus populations skew to the progressive side of the political spectrum? And are you likely to graduate from college with a stronger sympathy toward liberal values? Well, actually yes. At the risk of inflaming conservative anxieties, these things are all true.

There’s some evidence that college is not a conspiracy against conservative values. But there’s also a decent chance, according to the research, that college could make you more liberal. What is it about the undergraduate experience that tends to bring out the sleeping progressive in a certain percentage of students?

What is it about the undergraduate experience that tends to bring out the sleeping progressive in a certain percentage of students?”

Are students being indoctrinated by their professors? Is it the overwhelming sway of progressive peer pressure that increases the likelihood of a liberal shift? Or is there something inherent in the education itself that leads this way? The answer is probably different for every student. And in any event, these are hard factors to measure. But they are worth discussing, especially if your biggest concern is whether or not colleges are producing a balanced educational experience for students.

If you’re not totally sure what differentiates liberals and conservatives in the first place, you might want to start with our look at the 25 Most Controversial Topics. Many of these topics reveal the sharp ideological divides that shape our decidedly polarized political spectrum. They also make a great starting point for your next research project, persuasive paper, or Twitter debate!

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What does liberal mean?

First, let’s define our terms. In academia, the phrase “liberal education” carries a somewhat expansive meaning that speaks to the pursuit of academic inquiry, open discourse, and the kind of well-rounded general education that might render one a better citizen. This form of “liberalism” is not a political ideology nor does it belong to one side of the political spectrum or the other. It is, in fact, the philosophy which anchors most American institutions of higher learning.

But this is where our shared universal ideals come to an end. In the context of today’s academy, we use the phrase liberal to describe a left-leaning political orientation in a nation that has become increasingly polarized along ideological lines. Therefore, the preset definition of liberal refers broadly to those who identify with the political platform of the Democratic Party, with the progressive movement, or with such progressive political entities as the Green Party.

...the phrase “liberal education” carries a somewhat expansive meaning that speaks to the pursuit of academic inquiry, open discourse, and the kind of well-rounded general education that might render one a better citizen.”

Political liberalism is hardly a monolithic or singular ideology, but traditionally, liberals or progressives support human rights, civil liberties, democracy, social welfare, separation of church and state, and free enterprise. However, the form of this support can vary dramatically from center-left affiliation with establishment political structures like the Democratic Party all the way to radical activists who espouse Marxist or anarchist viewpoints.

For the purposes of our discussion, let’s presume that extremism exists both on the left and the right of the political spectrum, and that when we address the mainstream views of either liberals or conservatives, we refer to the majority of Americans who hew closer to the center, as opposed to those smaller demographics that break to either extreme.

Do colleges lean liberal?

Standing today at the intersection of education and politics is an academic movement called critical race theory. Critical race theory explores the intersection between law and race, and how this intersection has historically, and continues to present day, to reinforce structural racism. Though critical race theory emerged in the 1970s, and first gained prominence at universities in ’80s, it has attracted the ire of conservatives more recently, who object to its declaimed correlation between current legal structures and persistent white supremacy.

In many ways, critical race theory is symbolic of a growing tension between the modern conservative movement and the academy. Critical race theory has opened up a new battlefield in the political culture wars, bringing with it an avalanche of criticism leveled against professors and the system of higher education in general for what detractors view as a nakedly liberal orientation.

In many ways, critical race theory is symbolic of a growing tension between the modern conservative movement and the academy.”

And if this claim is strictly measured by the political orientation of those who inhabit the university, it holds some water. So says conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which in 2020 sought a comprehensive way of measuring political orientation in America’s colleges. In a survey of “three campus constituencies”–students, faculty and administrators–AEI reported that the data “unequivocally show that liberals are considerably overrepresented on university and college campuses. And the research on campus climate reveals a decrease in openness to non-liberal viewpoints.”

So does this mean that colleges themselves are simply bastions for liberal ideology, where freedom of thought is drowned out by loud and rancorous hostility toward conservative ideals and conservatives themselves? The AEI isn’t ready to draw this conclusion, exactly. According to the AEI, “the political leanings of academics cannot be seen as directly determining the state of campus discourse. In other words, we should be careful not to assume that the mere disparities in the political composition of campus communities are responsible for shaping campus climate.”

So professors lean liberal, but...

Are liberal college professors indoctrinating students?

According to Inside Higher Ed, a survey of 3,486 college seniors from colleges and universities throughout the U.S. found that “Forty-nine percent of the sample said that their professors expressed politically liberal views ‘frequently’ or ‘all the time.’ Just 9 percent said the same about conservative professors.”

But the study went a step further to determine whether an apparent liberal bias among faculty resulted in a feeling of liberal indoctrination for students. According to the study, while conservative students were on average more likely than liberal students to feel a sense of pressure as a consequence of their liberal professors’ political beliefs, only 10% of all students indicated feeling this pressure at all. Of those 10%, “the data suggest that students who felt pressure from conservative faculty members ‘frequently’ or ‘all the time’ felt more pressure than did students with liberal professors.”

That said, the overwhelming majority of college students reported that they did not feel any pressure to conform to the views of professors, regardless of how vocal these professors may or may not be about said views.

In fact, observed researchers, “‘we don’t see evidence that feeling pressured actually results in substantial changes to these students’ political inclinations.′ And when pressure from faculty members does ‘appear to have an impact, it actually encourages slight conservative shifts among students.’”

There are those in higher education who would beg to differ. One veteran professor who wishes to remain anonymous believes that such studies overlook what one might call the phenomenon of September indoctrination. The professor argued that:

“surveys fail to catch students during the few weeks or even days when they may be feeling like professors and fellow students are indoctrinating them. The reason their feeling of being indoctrinated is so brief is that it takes so little time for these students to change their views (typically from more conservative to more liberal) and come to a point where they feel like they have held their newly-minted views their whole lives.”

While we can neither confirm nor dispute the existence of the September indoctrination phenomenon based on the evidence available to us, the professor makes these observations from personal experience. He also adds that his observation is supported by an admission from late Harvard professor and progressive evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who “prided himself in leading students right to the brink of seeing the world the way he did, but refrained from pushing them over that brink, opting instead to let them take the last step themselves. Gould liked this method so that students would feel ownership of their decision to see the world the way he did. People might say that Gould was right to let students choose what to believe, but those same people are ignoring all the persuasive, selective retellings of evidence, stories, histories, etc. that bring students right to the brink of a new way of thinking.”

Is this really indoctrination? Our anonymous professor certainly believes so.

“In my mind,” he concludes, “this kind of top-down persuasion is definitely indoctrination, even if the students never sense it, and it happens every fall on university campuses all across America and elsewhere.”

Do universities restrict the expression of conservative ideas?

While the veteran professor above argues that this constitutes indoctrination, a formal definition of indoctrination suggests that certain ideas are being presented in an atmosphere that forbids questioning or critical reflection. So is this really what happens on college campuses? Are professors restricting the free exchange of ideas such that conservative values are prevented from seeing the light of day?

This is something that, anecdotally, many conservative observers believe to be true. High-profile incidents in which liberal activists have protested and effectively derailed the on-campus appearances of conservative talking heads like Charles Murray, Ben Shapiro, and Milo Yiannapolis have fostered the impression of college as an increasingly repressive environment for conservatives. A Pew Research Center survey from 2019 points to this impression, finding that Republicans in the general population overwhelmingly view colleges as being damaged by the political views of liberal professors.

“The concern,” reports an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “was sharpest among older Republicans, the furthest removed from college. Virtually all Republicans 65 and older who said colleges were headed in the wrong direction — 96 percent — said professors’ political and social views were a major reason, compared with 58 percent of Republicans aged 18 to 34.”

This suggests an age gap in how conservatives view ideological bias at America’s universities. That age gap is even wider when you speak to students. According to the same article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the vast majority of students don’t believe that their professors restrict the free expression of competing ideas, conservative or otherwise. For instance, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, responding to claims of bias against conservative views on campus, found that conservative students are more likely to self-censor but that there is little evidence that this is a consequence of the repression of free speech.

UNC Political Science professor Timothy J. Ryan, speaking on the findings, notes that “Students broadly agree that instructors encourage participation from across the political spectrum.”

However, according to the UNC researchers, many students “also reported self-censoring at least once, often because of what professors and classmates might think of them. Right-leaning students said they felt the most difficulty in that regard.”

These experiences make it difficult to conclude that indoctrination is or isn’t occurring. If our anonymous professor is correct, students are unwitting victims of indoctrination, and are therefore not reliable as witnesses to this crime. But the repression of questioning, criticism, or the contradiction of liberal political ideals is quite a leap from self-censorship as a consequence of social pressure.

This is not to dismiss the impact of the latter. Social pressure is likely a very real phenomenon, owing to the acknowledged slant toward liberal ideals on campus. Whether as a consequence of indoctrination or otherwise, liberal views are dominant on college campuses.

Is this all a big popularity contest?

The good news for conservatives is that they are no more or less popular on campus today than half a decade ago.

“In 2015,” finds the study from Ohio State University, “42% of students had ‘high’ positive attitudes toward political conservatives. That share increased substantially to 50% in 2016. Three years later, in 2019, it returned to 42%.”

That, however, is where the good news ends for conservatives, because if the goal is to prevent the spread of liberal ideas, it isn’t going well. To the contrary, the study finds that “positive attitudes toward politically liberal people generally increased during college.”

According to the study, in which “Students were actually surveyed over three points during college, 58% of students reported ‘high’ positive attitudes toward liberal values in 2015. That number grew to 66% in 2016 and then hit 70% in 2019.”

And yet, research suggests that there is no proportional relationship between increased positivity toward liberal ideas and a more negative attitude toward conservative values.

...research suggests that there is no proportional relationship between increased positivity toward liberal ideas and a more negative attitude toward conservative values.”

So what’s going on here?

One likely explanation is that conservative values have never been particularly popular across college campuses. Such is to say that college campuses have a long history of hosting calls for change. College students, therefore, have a long history of rejecting conservative values which, by their very definition, protect existing institutions against the threat of change. Agitation for change has, in the last half-century, become as cherished a campus tradition as football and honors societies.

Therefore, student discourse on inclusivity, widespread campus-based social justice protests, and an academic embrace of critical race theory demonstrate that the alignment between campus culture and progressive ideals is simply more organic. Moreover, this represents minimal change in the makeup of college campuses which, after all, were a major theatre in the anti-war and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.

In other words, the campus environment has historically cultivated a type of energy between students and professors that bends toward what progressives might call progress, what conservatives might call desecration, and which centrists might simply call change. Whatever you call it, it is often a change with mainstream potential, but which is tested first in this youthful hotbed of ideas and ambitions.

Those protests against the Vietnam War and racial segregation which were characterized as radical leftism in their time are generally accepted as mainstream values today, and well beyond college campuses. So while students, professors, and colleges have not necessarily become more hostile toward conservative values, one’s presence on a college campus does seem to increase liberal sympathies. And in doing so, it does naturally bring students and professors into direct confrontation with conservative ideologies.

Does conservatism promote hostility toward universities?

So to review, most conservative students do not feel ideologically pressured by their professors. And while university populations are more sympathetic to liberal ideals, conservatives are not necessarily less welcome on college campuses today than they were in the past. But there is one detectable trend that absolutely demands closer examination.

Conservative views on higher education are changing, and this shift itself may have a lot to do with the growing perception that colleges lean excessively to the left.

Conservative views on higher education are changing, and this shift itself may have a lot to do with the growing perception that colleges lean excessively to the left.”

In the last decade, views of higher education among Democrats and Independents have remained steady and overwhelmingly positive. However, during that same period of time, views among Republicans and conservatives have dimmed considerably. According to the Pew Research Center, “In late 2018, 84% of Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party said they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in college and university professors to act in the best interests of the public.”

This is in stark contrast to where conservatives stand on the direction of the academy today. According to the Pew Research Center, just 48% of Republicans and Republican leaners expressed confidence in colleges and universities. “In fact,” says Pew Research, “19% of Republicans said they have no confidence at all in college professors to act in the public interest. And in early 2019, 87% of Democrats – but fewer than half (44%) of Republicans – said colleges and universities are open to a wide range of opinions and viewpoints.”

Broadly speaking, says the Pew Research Center, the share of Republicans who view higher education in a negative light jumped from 35% to 59% between 2012 and 2019, while the number of Republicans who view higher education positively dropped from 53% to 33%.

This suggests a sort of chicken vs. egg dilemma. Do conservatives have a declining view of higher education because colleges are becoming more liberal? Or are colleges becoming more liberal because conservatives have a declining interest in contributing to this system as either students or educators?

We can’t really know this for certain. However, it may suggest at least one non-conspiratorial reason that students are more likely to move to the left during college. Namely, those who choose to become college students are already more predisposed to liberal ideals. Surely this is speculative, but the speculation stems from the growing political divide in attitudes toward higher education.

This divide may imply that liberal families and students are more likely to choose the path of higher education. It may also suggest that conservatives are more likely to opt out of the university. So if there is a liberal bias on college campuses, it may be partly attributed to the population’s own tendencies toward self-selection. Simply stated, conservatives may be underrepresented on college campuses because, in larger numbers than liberals, conservatives prefer to hone and proliferate their ideas elsewhere.

Will college turn you liberal?

Full disclosure, I was already a liberal before going to college. While in college, I became more familiar with the works of William Shakespeare. I muddled through Calculus. I gained 25 pounds. But I experienced little change in my political orientation.

A college education is designed to illuminate, to build knowledge, and to bring you into contact with new ideas, different perspectives, indeed, entire worldviews that have been previously unknown to you. Your study of history may take you on a journey through time, to those individuals, inventions, moments and movements that instigated progress. You may indulge in the philosophical combat between Kant and Mill; explore the ground separating Adam Smith and Karl Marx; or simply come to know of the profound human atrocities that have occurred, and continue to occur, throughout the world. And in any of these experiences, you may be changed.

And it’s true that this change is, more often than not, a leftward shift. Evidence suggests that the experience of going to an American college can have a liberalizing effect. According to the research, “Some 47 percent of students reported that they had changed their political leanings during college. Of those, 30 percent said they became more liberal, and 17 percent said they became more conservative. The share of ‘liberal’ students increased 5 percentage points and the share ‘very liberal’ grew by 4 percentage points.”

A college education is designed to illuminate, to build knowledge, and to bring you into contact with new ideas, different perspectives, indeed, entire worldviews that have been previously unknown to you.”

So is this all part of some secret, liberal vampiric cabal of progressive cult members feasting on the brains of conservative frosh-persons?

Well, probably not. But it does suggest the possibility that, as you embark on a college experience away from all that you have ever known and experienced, you will be exposed to the previously unseen, and it could change or, at the very least, widen your perspective. If a greater understanding of history moves you to the left, or a particular reading of economics pushes you to the right, it may be that your growing knowledge has awakened something which was already within you.

Let’s return for a moment to the above-mentioned research from Ohio State University, which found that positive campus attitudes toward conservative values jumped slightly in 2016, before returning to their initial rate of 42% by 2019. Researchers speculate that this small and temporary shift may be attributable to Donald Trump’s presidency and its catalyzing impact on the Republican Party.

Whether this is true or not, it does lend to an important consideration. Regardless of what takes place on the college campus, it’s possible that students are uniquely susceptible to ideological shifts in the face of public events. In other words, college students are uniquely of an age where ideas are still solidifying and political philosophies are still congealing around new information and understanding.

This is an intellectually formative point in one’s life, a time when events such as presidential elections, social movements, international conflicts, and domestic issues can transform loose systems of belief into passionately held worldviews. It’s also the case that younger Americans tend to skew to the left politically.

This means that a combination of age, demographic, and exposure to real-world events can collectively have the impact of solidifying views among those already predisposed to a leftward lean. And if professors tend also to lean progressive, and tend to be more outspoken in these leanings, it is also entirely conceivable that these professors are merely messengers of ideologies that their students will naturally adhere to at some point in their lives. College is indeed a hotbed of discussion, engagement, and debate, all of which make such adhesion highly likely at this exact point in life.

The Bipartisan Roundup

So again, do colleges lean liberal? Yes. Will college make liberals more liberal? Maybe. Will college turn conservatives liberal? Possibly.

This latter phenomenon may simply be the natural consequence of being immersed in an environment where liberal ideals are more popular, particularly at such a formative age.

This supposition brings us back to our original prompt. Why are colleges so liberal? To some extent, it’s because this is how the majority of students and professors prefer it. Such is to say that it’s not necessarily that colleges are making students liberal, but that students make colleges liberal. If students arrive at college skewing to the left, they may have a major hand in shaping the ideological environment that permeates most colleges.

But the truth of this discussion is that it invites as many questions as it answers. For instance, are conservative viewpoints being systematically excluded from higher education through biased hiring and tenure practices? In other words, while colleges skew toward liberal ideals, it remains unclear whether or not this skew is natural or by design. Do conservative views make one less likely to earn a position at an institution of higher learning?

In truth, we don’t really know the answer to this question, though there is no shortage of opinion pieces and anecdotal editorials which make this claim. What we can say is that the academy is strengthened by the informed expression of multiple viewpoints. As a liberal, I prefer that my ideas are challenged, such that I can better understand a subject and so that I can strengthen the defense of my own position.

So suffice it to say that while colleges are possessed by a liberal bias, the impact of this bias, and the reasons why it exists in the first place, remain worthy of debate. And in the spirit of classic academic liberalism, this is a pursuit of truth that we can all get behind, regardless of political orientation.

And also in this spirit, much as it pains me to say so as a liberal, one resolution is for conservatives to choose greater representation on America’s college campuses. Increasingly negative conservative attitudes toward higher education may be depriving universities of a meaningful conservative identity. And this, as much as any other force, may be at the root of the academy’s apparent leftward lurch.

Interested in exploring this question in greater depth? You might be a candidate for a bachelor’s degree in political science!

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