Warming Perceptions across the Political Divide

Welcome back to campus for the headlining event – Spring Term! (about as likely a band name as anything else these days, right?).

At the very end of winter term, Inside Higher Ed published a short piece highlighting a study that suggested the first year of college might broaden students’ political views. The story reviewed findings (described in more depth here) from an ongoing national study of college students’ interfaith understanding development that goes by the acronym IDEALS (AKA, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences & Attitudes Longitudinal Survey). In essence, both politically conservative and politically liberal students (self-identified at the beginning of their first year in college) developed more positive perceptions of each other by the beginning of their second year. Since Augustana is one of the participating institutions in this study, I thought it might be interesting to see if our local data matches up with the national findings.

The IDEALS research project is designed to track change over four years, asking students to complete a set of survey questions at the beginning of the first year (fall, 2015), at the beginning of the second year (fall, 2016), and at the end of the fourth year (spring, 2019). Many of the survey questions ask individuals about their perceptions of people of different religions, races, ethnicities, and beliefs. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the responses to four statements listed below and zero in on the responses from conservative students about liberal students and the responses from liberal students about conservative students.

  • In general, I have a positive attitude toward people who are politically conservative
  • In general, I have a positive attitude toward people who are politically liberal
  • In general, individuals who are politically conservative are ethical people
  • In general, individuals who are politically liberal are ethical people
  • In general, people who are politically conservative make a positive contribution to society
  • In general, people who are politically liberal make a positive contribution to society
  • I have things in common with people who are politically conservative
  • I have things in common with people who are politically liberal

For each item, the five response options ranged from “disagree strongly” to “agree strongly.”

First, let’s look at the responses from politically conservative students. The table below provides the average response score for each item at the beginning of the first year and at the beginning of the second year.

Politically Conservative Student’s Perceptions of Politically Liberal Students

Item Fall, 2015 Fall, 2016
Positive Attitudes 3.71 3.46
Ethical People 3.21 3.50
Positive Contributors 3.64 3.92
Positive Commonalities 3.23 3.29

Overall, it appears that conservative students’ perceptions of liberal students improved during the first year. Scores on two items (ethical people and positive contributors) increased substantially. Perceptions of commonalities remained essentially the same, and a self-assessment of positive attitudes toward liberal students declined. Normally, the drop in positive attitude would seem like a cause for concern, but conservative students positive attitudes toward other conservatives dropped as well, from 4.29 to 3.92. So maybe it’s just that the first year of college makes conservatives grouchy about everyone.

Second, let’s look at the responses from politically liberal students when asked to assess their perceptions of politically conservative students. Again, the table below provides the average response score for each item at the beginning of the first year and at the beginning of the second year.

Politically Liberal Student’s Perceptions of Politically Conservative Students

Item Fall, 2015 Fall, 2016
Positive Attitudes 3.61 3.65
Ethical People 3.58 3.78
Positive Contributors 3.33 3.76
Positive Commonalities 3.31 3.69

It appears that liberal students’ views of conservative students improved as well, maybe even more so. While positive attitudes about conservative students didn’t change, perceptions of conservatives as ethical people, positive contributors to society, and people with whom liberals might have things in common increased significantly.

Although the repeated gripe from conservative pundits is that colleges are a bastion of liberalism indoctrinating young minds, research (here and here) seems to contest this assertion. While the findings above don’t directly address students’ changing political beliefs, they do suggest that both politically conservative and politically liberal student’s perceptions of the other shift in a positive direction (i.e., they perceive each other more positively after the first year). This would seem to bode well for our students, our campus community, and for the communities in which they will reside after graduation. Because no matter how any of these student’s political views might change over four years in college, more positive perceptions of each other sets the stage for better interactions across differing belief systems. And that is good for all of us.

If we situate these findings in the context of a four-year period of development, I think we ought to be encouraged by these findings, no matter if we lean to the left or to the right. Maybe, even in the midst of all the Sturm und Drang we’ve experienced in the past few years, we are slowly developing students who are more equipped to interact successfully despite political differences.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

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