Politics And College Choice


One of the things I ask college admission counseling clients is their political orientation. The responses I get range from “liberal" to “conservative," although there are in-betweeners, such as “left-" or “right-of center," “moderate" and the always popular “apathetic."

Assessing a college student body's political atmosphere is something that should be part of every high school senior's college choice protocol. Today, let's take a look at some examples of left- and right-leaning schools. Perhaps you haven't given pause to consider what kinds of behaviors you'll see when you live on campus across the duration of your undergraduate years. If you haven't, you should.

The Princeton Review offers up a lot of helpful “most" lists. So I thought I'd go there first to see about the most liberal colleges in America. Let's take a look at the top 10:

#1 Bryn Mawr College; Bryn Mawr, Pa. • 1,334 enrolled

#2 Bennington College; Bennington, Vt. • 775 enrolled

#3 Reed College; Portland, Ore. • 1,447 enrolled

#4 Earlham College; Richmond, Ind. • 1,060 enrolled

#5 Sarah Lawrence College; Bronxville, N.Y. • 1,399 enrolled

#6 Grinnell College; Grinnell, Iowa • 1,712 enrolled

#7 Pitzer College; Claremont, Calif. • 1,112 enrolled

#8 Scripps College; Claremont, Calif. • 1,059 enrolled

#9 Mills College; Oakland, Calif. • 761 enrolled

#10 Brandeis University; Waltham, Mass. • 3,635 enrolled

At least on this Top 10 list, you don't see a school that has an enrollment larger than 3,700 students. In other words, it appears that the most liberal schools, at least according to this evaluation, are small, appropriately named “liberal" arts colleges.

I've wondered about this and have come up with my own theory that political sentiment, regardless of which end of the spectrum, may be strongest among a smaller, more concentrated group of students. At a large university, for example, where there may be tens of thousands of students, the political sentiments tend to get diluted by the great equalizer: apathy.

Of course, there are prominent exceptions to my offhand analysis. Maybe the first exception that comes to mind is the University of California - Berkeley, with over 30,000 students. There are others, but the trend for liberalism seems to manifest most sharply in small colleges.

Now, let's take a look at the other end of the political poll: The most conservative schools in America. According to Princeton Review, that top 10 looks like:

#1 Grove City College; Grove City, Pa. • 2,373 enrolled

#2 College of the Ozarks; Point Lookout, Mo. • 1,508 enrolled

#3 Hillsdale College; Hillsdale, Mich. • 1,512 enrolled

#4 University of Dallas; Irving, Texas • 1,460 enrolled

#5 Hampden-Sydney College; Hampden-Sydney, Va. • 1,046 enrolled

#6 Baylor University; Waco, Texas • 14,316 enrolled

#7 Wheaton College (IL); Wheaton, Ill. • 2,391 enrolled

#8 Auburn University; Auburn, Ala. • 23,964 enrolled

#9 The University of Alabama - Tuscaloosa; Tuscaloosa, Ala. • 33,305 enrolled

#10 Iowa State University; Ames, Iowa • 30,406 enrolled

With four exceptions, my small-college theory works 60 percent of the time on this list. The exceptions, the bigger universities, are located in the South and Midwest. The top 10 liberal colleges noted above are located mostly on the West Coast and in the Northeast. That fits the general stereotype of geopolitical localization (there's an SAT reading phrase for you!).

As you look for your candidate colleges, then, you may want to keep a very loose rule of thumb in mind: Location may (repeat: may) tend to contribute to a college's political leanings. That may be why you don't see any West Coast institutions listed among TPR's top 10 conservative schools. Yes, I know, number one is from the Northeast, but that's just 10 percent of the list. Don't go all “survey sample size" on me, okay? I'm just tossing theories against the wall.

Does It Affect College Life?

The uninitiated may ask, “Well, what kinds of things go on at liberal and conservative colleges?" The answer to that is, generally, “What goes on at most every other college: sports, partying, dating, academic work, making friends, frisbee and so on." However, at the extremes, as listed above, there are obvious signs of attitudinal behaviors.

For example, what kinds of recent happenings have occurred on liberal campuses? Here's just one example (I know, “sample size!") from an article in Forbes:

University Of Cincinnati Students Protest The “State Of The Nation"

College students today point to a myriad of school administration or national policies as “triggers" to protest. But some University of Cincinnati students seemed to run out of identifiable policies. So they decided to just showcase their general unhappiness by protesting the “state of the nation," as reported by The College Fix. It was a silent protest, according to one student, so that participants could “force people to witness our experiences without creating room for debate or differing opinions."

The sentiment of liberal protests (at least using this one as an example) appears to be trying to expose people to significant drama without allowing counterpoints. The tags for this kind of attitude might include “bullying," “shouting down" and “no free speech allowed." There may be other keywords. You can search them out for yourself.

In looking for examples of conservative students protesting on campus, all I could find included links to liberal students protesting conservative speakers on campus. Some of those protests have been violent and required riot police response. As a substitute for examples of conservative students getting politically rowdy like their liberal peers, I did find an interesting first-person perspective from a young female conservative college student: What It's Like to Be a College Conservative in 2018. Here are a few interesting comments from this Gettysburg (Pa.) College undergraduate:

Being an active conservative on today's college campus is no casual decision. Depending on the college, it can be costly, tiring, and infuriating, and exhausting.

But it's worth it.

Since the beginning of my freshman year at Gettysburg College, I have served on the executive board of Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative activist group on campus.

Before joining, I was aware of the chapter's less-than-stellar reputation. In fact, I knew members faced routine, relentless criticism, both in person and online. Yet, as an inspired first-year, I wanted to prove my conviction and find like-minded folks.

It is not easy to live openly as a conservative on a progressive college campus. This is not to say I live the most difficult collegiate life. When I say that it is difficult, that is all I intend.

I have been told that when others admit I am their friend, they often have to give an explanation—a qualification that deems me the exception to the widely accepted rule that YAF members must be hateful bigots.

While that would be ideal, it is not currently feasible—increasingly, members of the left falsely equate conservative views with those of the Nazis. This shameful effort proves that delegitimization, rather than civil dialogue, is the true objective of many on the left....

She ends by revealing her idealism, which is perhaps a shade more than naive:

If we stop viewing every dimension of life through a political lens, friendships and associations will form regardless of one's ideology, and those relationships will inspire us to treat one another with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves.

Check Your Own Political Views

My advice, then, to those of you shopping for colleges, is to take a look at your own politics. Are you liberal in your thinking? Are you conservative? Are you somewhere in between (“fair and balanced")? Or are you just plain apathetic? Apathy is a popular political stance on campus these days, as it was when I went to college.

The reason for trying to understand your personal political convictions is to add an additional selectivity criterion to your college search. You might be able to see from the Gettysburg College student's experience that it's challenging to be a declared conservative on what she describes as a “progressive" campus. The same may hold true for a liberal on a conservative campus. There are consequences for mismatching politics. So, be aware of that.

Also, if you're a “peace in the valley" type and don't want upheaval, riot police and tear gas as part of your college days (daze?), then do some background work on what campus life is like on the schools you're considering. A great source for that kind of inside scoop comes from student newspapers. They're all on the web, so check them out.

The college process is mostly about “the match"-- how well you're going to fit into the environment of the school where you enroll. Political views loom large today, almost everywhere, but a lot of the impact of liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican, Socialist vs. Capitalist and so on gets its start in the realm of higher education. Study up!