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Articles / Applying to College / Which Political Way Does Your College Lean?

Oct. 20, 2016

Which Political Way Does Your College Lean?

In case you haven't noticed, things have become highly political lately. (I think that may qualify as an understatement.) The presidential race is on the verge of wrapping up, much to the relief of many millions of Americans. The final presidential debate concluded last evening. The candidates and the people are near exhaustion.

How, then, am I going to make the connection between politics and college? Simple: political orientation. Colleges, just like many people, have political leanings: liberal, conservative, or middle of the road. If you're a high school student contemplating a college education, you should be asking yourself in which of those three classifications your ideals have placed you.

Of course, there may be a fourth classification: apathetic. That translates colloquially into “I couldn't care less." That might be the attitude of some high schoolers who are concerned more with the realities of everyday life than the contentions of politicians and government.

There's a possible consequence for the apathetic who head to a college that espouses a particularly strong political orientation. The apathetic student may develop the political philosophy of that school, be it liberal, conservative, or otherwise, due to having no prior preferences about such things. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon issues and circumstances that will evolve later in the student's life. I have personal experience with the apathy-to-polarized effect, but that's a tale for another discussion.

You may be asking yourself how to know what a certain college's or university's dominant political cultural is. That's a good question. In general, you would be safe assuming that the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities are liberal, so-called “left leaning." I'll get to some thoughts about why that may be a little farther down the page.

In the meantime, let's take a look a some data that point to the most liberal universities in American higher education. An interesting article appeared in The Washington Post the other day, listing The most liberal universities in the United States. The introduction states:

… An article recently published in Econ Journal Watch draws on original data to show just how liberal the United States' universities have become. The researchers looked at a subscription-only online database that shows how vast numbers of Americans are registered in the 30 states that share this kind of information. They examine the ratio of Democrats and Republicans among tenure-track in five academic fields — economics, history, journalism/communications, law and psychology — at 40 top American universities. (Some of the nation's top universities, such as the University of Chicago, Rice University and the University of Notre Dame, are excluded from the list because their states don't release voter registration information.) …

I was intrigued by this, so I checked out the Econ Journal Watch (EJW) article and found this abstract:

We investigate the voter registration of faculty at 40 leading U.S. universities in the fields of Economics, History, Journalism/Communications, Law, and Psychology. We looked up 7,243 professors and found 3,623 to be registered Democratic and 314 Republican, for an overall D:R ratio of 11.5:1. The D:R ratios for the five fields were: Economics 4.5:1, History 33.5:1, Journalism/Communications 20.0:1, Law 8.6:1, and Psychology 17.4:1. The results indicate that D:R ratios have increased since 2004, and the age profile suggests that in the future they will be even higher. We provide a breakdown by department at each university. The data support the established finding that D:R ratios are highest at the apex of disciplinary pyramids, that is, at the most prestigious departments. We also examine how D:R ratios vary by gender and by region. People interested in ideological diversity or concerned about the errors of leftist outlooks—including students, parents, donors, and taxpayers—might find our results deeply troubling.

The key sentence, at least in my view, is the final one: “We also examine how D[emocrat]:R[epublican] ratios vary by gender and by region. People interested in ideological diversity or concerned about the errors of leftist outlooks—including students, parents, donors, and taxpayers—might find our results deeply troubling."

This is why I suggested above that you high school students should examine your political orientation before entering your college search. If you are conservative, you may very well find a liberal college stimulating. On the other hand, a liberal student may find a conservative school suffocating. Of course, there are any number of in-between scenarios, especially for the apathetics out there.

You may be wondering which are the very top liberal schools (universities in this case) listed in the Post article. Here are the Top 10, in descending order of liberalism, according to EJW's methodology:

– Brown

– Boston

– Johns Hopkins

– Rochester

– Northeastern

– Tufts

– Columbia

– Princeton

– Brandeis

– Maryland

The #5 university reveals a geographic clue driving the liberalism: the Northeast U.S., which apparently is a bastion of liberalism. I think we already knew that.

I posted the Post article on the College Confidential discussion forum, where — according to my observations over the years — the forum members' political orientation appears to be largely liberal. I enjoyed reading some of their comments in response to my thread. Here are a few highlights:

– Voter registration seems like a poor indication of liberal or conservative leanings.

Reagan Democrats are conservative and have voted R for decades.

Many people register as one thing when they first register and never change party affiliation (Mr R is an example of this).

If this election has proven anything, it's that liberal and conservative no longer really align nicely with Ds and Rs

– It's hilarious that the first two replies attempt to deflect away from the truth. Just admit it. Everyone knows that academia and the media are wildly skewed to the Left.

I'm just happy to know that those in academia and the media check their biases at the door when doing studies and reporting, you know, all the sources regular people use to make decisions in politics, the economy, etc.

– Maybe liberals are more intelligent so they get the tenure track faculty jobs.

– Invalid methodology. The results are therefore flawed and useless. States with an open primary, such as Wisconsin, will find many liberals who do not feel any need to join a political party. Liberals may balk at limiting themselves in that manner. I'm from Wisconsin and never joined a political party until moving to Florida where it was necessary to help choose candidates in the primary elections. I used to need to decide which primary ticket to choose based on the importance of various races and the people running. There is no way of determining how individuals associated with a college/university voted. The closest we can come is to look at the voting demographics of the areas they work in and presumably live in.

There can also be a difference in the faculty and students. I've heard the students at UW (Wisconsin)-Madison are more conservative now than back in my day. The faculty- don't know. The Vietnam War era was very different.

– A significant majority of those with advanced degrees lean democrat (and even there, the bump is made up almost entirely of women). The data is pretty clear that party identification really skews on three fronts. One, education level where you see large majorities of democrat identification among the least educated and the highest, but a more balanced distribution in the middle. Two, race where you have an exceedingly large majority of African Americans who identify democratic, while other groups tend to split or identify more as independents. Three, gender where large majorities of unmarried women (specifically younger unmarried women) identify democratic, while other groups split more evenly…

– … And before you tell me that leaners are really just party identifiers by another name, I will tell you plainly that they are not. I can state with a high degree of confidence that no politician or anyone with experience in politics views them that way. Leaners are issue voters. Those are the soccer moms, and NASCAR dads, Clintonite third way-ers and Reagan democrats. Party identifiers are ideological. A party identifer who doesn't like Trump or Clinton still holds their nose and pulls the lever. Leaners maybe not …


By the way, feel free to join that discussion. Now, though, in the interest of balance, let's take a quick look at some conservative-oriented schools.

A quick search for “most conservative colleges" yields a long list of links. One listing leads off with these eight schools:

– Hillsdale College

– Grove City College

– Biola University

– University of Dallas

– Liberty University

– College of the Ozarks

– Houston Baptist University

– Regent University

Once again, there appears to be a trace of geographic similarity at work, although this group does span the continent rather well.

The authors of this conservative list note:

Conservative colleges provide an important counterbalance to the progressivism and liberalism that pervade so much of American higher education. For students raised with traditional moral values, who favor limited government, who adhere to free-market economic principles, entering the world of higher education is too often an alienating experience.

For conservative students, it can be a challenge to find a college or university that embraces—or even tolerates—conservative values in its curriculum and student life. This ranking of the best conservative colleges in America helps conservative students and parents to find a school in keeping with their conservative values and commitments …


Finally, so we cover the entire political-orientation spectrum, let's take a (very) quick look at some schools where students, in large part, couldn't care less: The Apathetics. Of course, this listing doesn't use the same methodology as the EJW, but it's interesting anyway. It's “a list of schools where 'Election? What Election?' is a common refrain sung by all. The list is completely unpredictable, ranging from Hard Work U, a.k.a. the College of the Ozarks, to Durham's own Duke University."

So, have at it … that is, if you care.


Check College Confidential for all of my college-related articles.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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