An annual survey of American college students found freshmen are more politically polarized now than any year in the poll’s 51-year history.
All of 42.3 percent of full-time freshmen surveyed last year described themselves to pollsters as politically middle-of-the-road, according to the results of the study conducted by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute and released this week.
The percentage of students who identified politically in the middle is the lowest pollsters have seen since the survey started in 1966, its authors acknowledged.
“Today’s college freshmen are more politically divided and more interested in political engagement than their peers of the last 50 years,” Kevin Eagan, lead author of the report and managing director of the Higher Education Research Institute, told the Los Angeles Times.
“College and university leaders need to be proactive in providing opportunities for students to discuss their differences, political and otherwise, in constructive ways while also ensuring that their campuses respect and protect students’ free speech,” he said.
More than one-third of college freshmen, 35.5 percent, described themselves last year as liberal or far-left, according to the report. Only 22.2 percent, meanwhile, identified themselves as conservative or far-right, pollsters reported.
And while left-leaning respondents have outnumbered conservative students annually since the Reagan administration, the latest batch of first-year students identified as far-left more than in any other year on record — 4.2 percent.
“The increased activism among entering college students we found in 2015 seemed to intensify in the months leading up the election, and our 2016 survey points to the diversity and polarity of how college freshmen perceive their place in the current political landscape,” Mr. Eagan said in a statement.
“Part of this trend may also be due to some of the gridlock in Congress,” he told The Atlantic. “As Republicans took over Congress during Obama’s final two years, students may have felt more pressure, more inclined to choose a side. And I think that last year’s election certainly exacerbated that.”
About 55 percent of voters under the age of 29 cast ballots in favor of Democratic contender Hillary Clinton during last year’s White House race, compared to 37 percent who supported the election’s ultimate victor, President Trump.
The results of this week’s HERI study came from surveying 137,456 first-time, full-time students who entered college last fall.