To Impact Society, Today's Students Pick Service Over Politics

To Impact Society, Today's Students Pick Service Over Politics
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

If news stories about the end of the decade are to be believed, the 2010s were an era in which American students – those in Gen Z – became significant agents of social change. Headlines regularly depict students protesting climate change, or organizing nation-wide school walkouts. We see Stoneman Douglas students in Parkland, FL marching and advocating for more gun control, and seemingly never-ending student protests on our nation’s colleges and universities, demanding change under the banner of social justice and equity. Such headlines make it easy to believe that those in Gen Z see themselves as agents of social change, and that, for them, protesting has become the norm.

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The problem with this narrative is that is it simply not true.

Despite news reports which simplify and exaggerate reality, most American students are not interested in protesting; those who are new to college are more concerned with community service than their earlier counterparts, but public demonstration is not a high priority whatsoever.

As a professor who works with Gen Z Americans, I have visited scores of colleges and universities and talked with thousands of students. I have noticed that our students are not overwhelmingly political or interested in protesting.   

Six decades of data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) supports this line of thinking.
HERI has regularly presented a list of “objectives” to be achieved in college to incoming students who were asked if they were “essential” or “very important.” When asked about “keeping up to date with political affairs,” for instance, 57% of students on average thought this was essential or very important throughout the 1960s. This figure dropped significantly in the 1970s to 46% and a few points lower to an average of 43% in the 1980s.

By the 1990s, interest in politics waned even more to 37% and from 2000 to the 2015, the number slipped a few points more to 35% – a figure 20 points lower than the 1960s. By 2015, the figure ticked up a bit with the generational change on campus, and by 2017, the figure climbed to 48%. So, there has been a very recent jump in interest in political affairs, most likely due to the rise of Donald Trump, but this is a figure still notably lower than the norm in the 1960s. 

Similarly, when students were asked about their interest in “influencing the political structure,” the figure has been fairly low and stable since the 1960s.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, about 17% of students thought that influencing politics was essential or very important. From the 1990s through 2015, the average increased slightly to 20%. In 2016 and 2017, the figure jumped with Gen Z on campus to 27% – but this is barely a quarter of the population.

HERI went further and asked the same students about performing volunteer or community service work. This is, of course, a different way to have political influence and the data show that there has been a steady increase from 1990, when only 17% believed that there was a “very good chance’ that they will engage in service, compared to 37% in 2017 –an increase of almost 118%.

Finally, incoming students were also asked about whether they intended to “participate in student protests or demonstrations” between 1967 and 2015, and that number has remained low over the past five decades. Only about 6% of incoming students on average said that there is a “very good chance” that they will protest. This figure vacillated between about 3.5% and 8% – but never crossed the 9% line, revealing that incoming college students are not inclined to be as radically engaged as the media often portrays them – and they weren’t so inclined even in the 1960s when the U.S. was going through massive socio-political change. Moreover, these protest statistics have barely changed even when other measures of political and social engagement have significantly shifted over time.

Regrettably, newer recent data has not been released but the 2018 HERI survey does have this question included. Even if the newer data doubles the student numbers toward protest, it would still amount to a small percentage of students and would not support the common narrative that students are eager to protest and demonstrate. When they do, they are often prodded by activist administrators who set the tone and influence student behavior on our nation’s college campuses.

Interest in politics among college students is appreciably lower compared to those entering college in the 1960s, and students say they have little interest in protests and demonstrations. On the other hand, students today are more interestedin volunteer or community service work when compared to those in earlier eras.

The current 24-hour news cycle and social media universe may have created the impression that today’s students are hyper-political and eager to demonstrate, but it simply is not true. Today’s college students want to make an impact, but they are more interested in impacting society by non-political means.

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