Eric Kaufmann, Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, October 3, 2022
- America’s elite university students are more demographically diverse than the general population, but more politically divided along lines of race, gender, sexuality, and religion.
- Minority and female students are far more liberal on campus than in the general population, whereas straight white Christian men are somewhat more conservative on campus than in the general population. Current trends portend a politics in which elite women, minorities, gays, and the nonreligious are more left-leaning while elite whites, males, and Christians remain relatively conservative.
- White Christians tend to cluster in red state flagship universities, which are the most politically balanced in the country and have similar shares of liberal and conservative students. Yet many flagship universities in flyover states with conservative reputations actually have more liberal than conservative students.
- A quarter of students are LGBT, and there are roughly equal shares of Christian and nonreligious students. LGBT, Nonreligious, and Christians are set to become more important political groups among America’s future leaders.
- Liberal arts colleges are the least politically diverse. Many have almost no conservatives, and thus very low viewpoint diversity. But they have high sexual diversity, at nearly 40 percent LGBT.
- Ivy League schools average 10-15 percent conservative and 60-75 percent liberal. Across 150 leading schools, there are nearly 2.5 liberals for every conservative.
- Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 55-23 margin on campus, and liberals outnumber conservatives 53-21. Elite students are thus two-thirds more Democratic and twice as liberal as the American population.
- Among elite students, there is a 15-point gender gap in political ideology and party identification between men and women. This is 3 to 5 times larger than the gender gap in the general population. It is also 2 to 3 times larger than the gender gap among either the 18-25 or college-educated general population. The campus gender gap has grown steadily since 2004.
- The university with the highest viewpoint diversity ranking is the University of Arkansas, whose students are 35% conservative, 37% liberal, 36% Republican, and 41% Democratic. The least diverse is Smith College, at 81% liberal, 1% conservative, 78% Democratic, and 2% Republican.
- Thirty percent of students and nearly the same share of academic staff in Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) fields identify as the furthest left point on a 7-point conservative-liberal scale. For Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects, a smaller share – 20% of students and 10% of staff – identify as far left.
- Self-identified Jews make up only 3% of elite students and just 7% of Ivy League students, suggesting a considerable decline since the early 2000s.
- Homeschooled and parochial schooled undergraduates are as or more likely to identify as LGBT or non-binary as those from public or private school backgrounds.
I begin with the basic demography of the 57,000 college students surveyed by FIRE. The survey aimed at a reasonably representative sample of the student body of research-intensive universities and elite colleges. In the combined 2020-21 sample of approximately 57,000 students, 52% of respondents are white, 19% are Asian, 11% Hispanic, 7% black, and 7% multiracial. With survey weights applied, the white share rises to 61%, which is about 10 points whiter than Gen-Z as a whole. The HERI survey, based on a far less exclusive sample of colleges, shows a more racially diverse student population, with 50% white, 11% Latino, and 10% black. However, the Asian share was lower in the HERI data, at 12%, and the multiracial component higher, at 16%.
In the FIRE data, only six colleges were more than 80% white, though all were at least 10% minority: BYU, Maine, UNH, Vermont, Wyoming, and Utah State. A larger number of institutions were less than 20% white, with three under 10% white, including Howard (0%), Cal State Los Angeles (6%), and UC Riverside (7%). These figures approximate to actual reported numbers from the universities themselves.
The share of white students in Ivy League universities averaged 41% in the survey data, with Asians at 27%, both of which tally with the university figures. Asian students comprised 19% of the FIRE student sample overall, well above this group’s share of the national population of 18-24-year-olds, which is around 5%.5 In the FIRE data, the colleges with the highest Asian share were Carnegie-Mellon, Stony Brook, and the University of Hawaii. These campuses’ official Asian component stands at 33%, 27%, and 37%, respectively. At the other end of the scale, Asians made up under 3% of students in the FIRE sample at six institutions (BYU, Kansas, Kent State, New Mexico State, Utah State, and the University of Maine).
The African American share in the dataset was 7%, ranging from less than 1% at four schools (BYU, Colorado School of Mines, Oregon State, University of Idaho) to 88% at Howard University, a historically black institution. Latinos made up nearly 11% of students, ranging from over half the student body at four colleges (Cal State Fresno, Cal State Los Angeles, Florida International, and New Mexico State) to between 1 and 2% at the University of Vermont, University of Maine, Howard University, and Ohio University. Official figures place the Hispanic share of the student population at around 55% at Cal State Fresno and 70% in the other three colleges.
Social Identity Gaps in the Elite Student Population
The pattern that emerges from comparing national election data and FIRE data on elite students is twofold. First, that students are considerably more diverse in terms of sexual orientation and religion than the American public. Second, that gender, and to a lesser degree race, are more important determinants of ideology and party identification among elite students than among the wider public. Religion and sexual orientation have a similar predictive power for both the public and students, but the fact there is a larger share of nonreligious and LGBTQ people among students elevates their importance for predicting the total variation in political attitudes.
In terms of race, what is noticeable when comparing students to the public is how few conservatives there are among minority students compared to the wider minority public. Figure 15 shows that 36% of minorities in the CCES (i.e., the public) identify as conservative compared to just 13% of minority students in the FIRE sample, a nearly threefold difference. By comparison, 26% of white students identify as conservative compared to 47% of white adults, less than a twofold discrepancy.
Comparing students with their corresponding 18-25 age group in the wider population shows that minority elite students are markedly more liberal (24 points more liberal and 24 points less conservative) than their non-elite age cohort while white elite students differ less (20 points more liberal, 10 points less conservative). Moreover, there is only a small difference between white elite students and the white public sample of under-25s in the CCES but a large difference of 13-19 points between elite minority students and young, degree-holding members of the minority public. Minority elite students appear to be distinctively liberal compared to both their own classmates and their racial peers.
Race is also an important variable because sexual orientation, religion, and to some extent gender, tend to split the white population politically more than they do the minority population. Figures 16 and 17 set out the pattern for elite students and the general public respectively. Gaps represent the average of the difference between the conservatism plus the liberalism of contrasting identity groups.
In Figure 16, which examines the student population, white men are 16 points more conservative and less liberal than women, and minority men are 13 points more so than minority women. This is only a modest difference. However, consider the next two sets of bars which show that identity-political dynamics are more intense within the white population. On sexuality, straight whites are 31 points more conservative and less liberal than LGBTQ whites, while the corresponding gap among minority LGBTQ and heterosexuals is 12 points. On religion, white Christians lean right by 37 points more than whites without religion. For minorities, the difference between Christians and those with no religion is only half as large, at 17 points.
Comparing elite students with the wider public in Figure 17 shows one major difference: the gender gap in ideology is a negligible 3 points between men and women, whether white or non-white. Men and women in general do not differ much in their liberalism or conservatism in the wider public. This contrasts with the 16-point difference among white students and 13-point gap among non-white students in Figure 16. Clearly gender is a more salient political divide on campus than off it.
By contrast, the other sets of bars look relatively similar between students and the public. Identity divides around sexuality and religion loom much larger among whites than among minorities, as with the student figures. LGBTQ members of the public who are white are 25 points more liberal than heterosexual whites, and minority LGBTQ citizens are 10 points more liberal than their heterosexual minority counterparts. On religion we find a 25-point gap between white Christians and whites without religion, and a 9-point gap between minority Christians and minority members of the public without religion. These ideological differences are around 10 points smaller among the public than among elite students, but what really stands out in the public sample in Figure 17, compared to students, is how muted the gender gap is.
Could it be that the educated public resembles elite students? Or that things are different with party identification as opposed to ideology? Turning to party identification in Figure 18 and comparing elite students with members of the public that have a degree shows some interesting patterns. First, there is no difference in the partisan race gap between students and the graduate public. In both demographics, whites are around 15 points more Republican and less Democratic than non-whites.
This report has examined the demographic and political composition of 159 leading universities based on surveys of 57,000 undergraduate students. It shows that elite students lean liberal and Democratic by a margin of 2.5 to 1. This places them to the left of the median voter, the young and college-educated public, and students attending lower-ranked colleges.
Today’s elite students are substantially more diverse in terms of race, sexuality, and religiosity than elite students of the 1980s and 90s. A quarter identify as LGBTQ, and the share with no religion is nearly as large as the proportion who are Christian. In addition, these identity characteristics matter more for students’ political opinions than they do for the public. Consequently, women, minorities, and LGBTQ students at leading universities lean considerably further left than members of their identity groups in the wider population, even compared to those that are young and college-educated.
Only a quarter of students are white, heterosexual, and identify as Christian. White straight Christian men make up little more than 10% of the total. White Christians, white conservatives, and white males, therefore, appear to be increasingly self-conscious minorities on today’s liberal and secular elite campuses. The level of segregation of white conservatives and Christians within the elite college system is notably higher than the clustering of white liberals, minority conservatives, and minority Christians among elite universities. In contrast, white Christian, white male, and white heterosexual elite students differ much less from members of their group in the wider public than female, minority, and LGBTQ elite students. Young liberals, especially minority liberals, seem to cluster towards elite universities but are not institutionally segregated among them. Conservatives, especially white conservatives, do not cluster toward elite schools but are relatively institutionally segregated among them.
In the liberal-dominated elite college system, viewpoint diversity is strongly associated with colleges that recruit more conservative students. State flagship universities in the South or inland West have the highest levels of viewpoint diversity. Liberal arts colleges, many in New England, have the lowest levels of viewpoint diversity. Whether the former can capitalize on their political diversity, and the latter take steps to improve theirs, turns on whether university leaders consider viewpoint diversity as important as more conventional forms of diversity.