College environment may impact many student voter attitudes

By Mark Minton

With the 2012 election approaching, many young voters will get their first chance to participate in choosing the next U.S. president.

President Barack Obama currently has an 8-point lead over Republican candidate Mitt Romney in a poll conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. But a poll taken in April showed Obama ahead of Romney by 17 points, so the election could still be up for grabs. Young voters ages 18–29, many of them college students, make up a significant portion of the electorate.

College exposes students to increasing levels of diversity, new social codes and multiple levels of influence from peers and school administration, according to Bruce Newman, professor of marketing at DePaul University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of

Political Marketing.

Newman said the college environment stimulates ideas, and the experience changes young people’s perspectives in several ways because professors have the ability to influence students’ political attitudes.

“The impact of college is huge on [the] moral, ethical and social development of a young person,” Newman said. “More than the knowledge of information that a student learns, the transfer of values from universities to students shapes values in a way that stays with a person for the rest of his or her life.”

According to an article by New York University’s Matthew Mayhew published in The Journal of Higher Education in August, interactions among students with different beliefs appear to have a liberalizing effect on social and institutional levels.

“[College students’ relationships] are a two-way street,” Newman said. “There is a structure that defines movement of ideas from faculty to students in universities, but simultaneously there is a mindset among students at different universities that affects how their university transfers information.”

The article states there is overwhelming evidence that since 1976, one’s affiliation to a political party has been the dominant factor affecting voter choice. Liberalism in higher education is disproportionately larger than conservative presence, according to the journal.

An article published in Academe by Matthew Woessner, an associate professor of political science and public policy at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, states student political attitudes and partisan orientations shift over time, but the role of professors is hardly substantial compared to other factors like interpersonal relationships.

Pauline Weissman, a Young Democrats of America intern at Columbia University, said college is the first time in a person’s life that he or she granted political agency and assured social diversity.

“What’s going on socially, politically and economically in the larger world outside of college is certainly refracted on the campus,” Weissman said. “People are being exposed to diversity at a younger age. They’re getting into universities, and we happen to have this large blue voter base [among young people].”

Alyssa Farah, spokeswoman for the College Republican National Committee, said in an email that it is an overstatement to suggest most college students veer to the left politically.

“Young voters care about the same issues as older voters,” Farah said. “Being financially independent, having the ability to pay bills and job market accessibility [are all important to college students].”

According to Institute of Politics data from April, 74 percent of young voters consider job availability and the economy to be the top voting issues in the election.

The data indicated that Millennials, born between 1980 and 1995, are gravitating toward Obama and Democrats in Congress despite decreased support since 2008, while there has been no change in their support for Romney and Republicans in Congress.

“The Millennial generation is by far the most socially liberal youth voting block in this nation’s history,” Weissman said. “[But] if anyone is a swing voter, it’s the young voter. They don’t have enough life experience, so things become kind of gray.”