American college campuses have long been bastions of political activism and engagement. From war protests to walk-outs, college students have a long tradition of contributing to the national political discourse.
Still, political engagement levels vary between students and across campuses. Some students are just learning about broader political issues and are forming their own political opinions for the first time, while others are organizing political activities and clubs on campus. Politicians and candidates often speak on campuses, and students have a role in shaping nascent political movements.
Below, we’ve aggregated a list of the 10 campuses with the most politically engaged students. While this is an inherently subjective exercise, you’ll find a few common criteria on our list. Most of the schools below have a tradition of political activity, and many of them have notable former politicians on their faculty or administrative boards. Curious to see if your school made the cut? Read on to find out!
Four miles north of the National Mall, American University is a hub for politically active students. A small private school, American is renowned for having some of the most politically engaged students in the country, drawn by the school’s emphasis of political life in and outside of the classroom.
American’s School of Public Affairs and School of International Service give students a rigorous and comprehensive education in political science. In addition to its highly respected programs in politics and government, the school also boasts a strong law program. Students regularly work at the White House, Congress, or elsewhere in Washington politics through internships and other programs. Federal agencies recruit on American’s campus for future employees and many of the faculty at American formerly worked in politics.
George Washington University
Only blocks away from the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and the Potomac River, George Washington lies in the heart of Washington D.C. The school fulfilled George Washington’s wish to have a college in the nation’s capital, and it was later named for him. In the time since, GW has become one of the most politically active schools in the nation.
Several faculty members have served in government, and many students find internships in politics during school and in their professional careers. Notable alumni include Senator Harry Reid, former Congressman Eric Cantor, former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, former CIA Director Allen Dulles, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. GW is renowned for its School of International Affairs, its law program, and the Graduate School of Political Management. In addition to academics, students are heavily involved in political causes and clubs on campus, such as Young Americans for Liberty, the International Affairs Society, and many more.
Oberlin College has a lengthy history of politically-charged campus activism. The school, founded in 1835, quickly became one of the bases for the abolition movement. And while advocates for abolition made Oberlin their home, arguing one of the most important political issues in the U.S. history, Oberlin was also one of the first schools to admit African Americans.
Today, Oberlin continues its tradition of political activism by encouraging creativity, free thinking, and alternative perspectives. There’s a strong focus on diversity, gender rights, and many other social justice issues. Students can live in culturally themed dorms, take courses on “peace and conflict” or colonialism, and attend symposia on poverty or sustainability. The traditionally liberal school also has dozens of political clubs, such as Oberlin College Republicans and Students for Energy Justice, along with a student government.
Columbia is the oldest college in New York, and one of the oldest in the country. Over its long history, it has hosted a number of successful and notable student protests. From the famed 1968 protests over a Vietnam War-linked weapons think tank and campus expansion, to the protest against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he came to speak on campus, the student body’s political activity has repeatedly grabbed national headlines.
Columbia has hundreds of student organizations on campus, with many focused on political activism. Columbia’s prestigious schools of journalism and international and public affairs attract many politically active students who go onto careers in politics. Columbia counts five founding fathers, nine U.S. Supreme Court justices, and dozens of heads of state around the world in its alumni, including Alexander Hamilton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Barack Obama.
Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York was one of the first degree-granting colleges for women in the U.S. Although now a coeducational college, gender politics are intertwined with Vassar’s history, and today the campus has a politically active student body.
Some students take to political publications, such as the Vassar Chronicle, to get involved, while others join the Vassar Greens to promote sustainability and environmental issues throughout the community. There are dozens of student organizations on campus focused on political issues, including nonpartisan groups aimed at enhancing political and social discourse.
New College of Florida
Originally a private college, the New College of Florida has emerged as the “Honors College” of the public state university system, and the place to go for politically minded students in the Sunshine State. Founded on the principles of free thought and student investigation, the school is a breeding ground for liberal ideas and politics.
The New College Student Alliance is more powerful than many college student governments. It plays a role in significant campus operations, such as new construction on campus, the revisions to the school’s master plan, and various fund allocations. The whole student body can participate in the NCSA through Towne Meetings, which allow debate and discussion for all members of the campus community.
With just more than 2,000 students on campus, Bard’s campus activity is a little more subdued than what you might find at a larger school. Still, its small student body is deeply involved with politics and important issues locally and internationally. Bard has a strong student government on campus and plenty of clubs for students to join. The well-respected liberal arts school also has a number of prominent student movements related to environmental issues. The campus includes an organic farm, and students have recently implemented several initiatives to reduce the school’s carbon footprint.
University of California - Berkeley
Famous for its student protests and Free Speech Movement activism in the 1960s, Berkeley’s students remain politically active today. The Berkeley Forum regularly hosts prominent and controversial political figures, such as Silicon Valley venture capitalist and noted free speech opponent Peter Thiel, while the student-run Democratic Education program DeCal is still going strong today. There are nearly 100 political organizations on campus for students to join and participate in, covering issues ranging from human rights abuses to environmentalism. UC Berkeley also sends a several students to the Peace Corps each year.
Many of the most politically active communities have strong liberal political leanings, and Macalester College in Saint Paul is no different. With a diverse group of U.S. and international students, all are encouraged to take part in politics near and far. The school has a long history of gender politics, with a strong track record of supporting LGBT rights and related political activities. Macalester promotes activism in a broader sense too, as a significant percentage of students volunteer in the community and many are invested in sustainability and environmental causes.
Pitzer College and Claremont McKenna College
Pitzer and Claremont McKenna are two of the five undergraduate schools in the Claremont Colleges consortium in Claremont, California. These schools, along with Pomona, Harvey Mudd, and Scripps, allow their students to take courses at each other’s campuses. Pitzer is home to frequent protests and a significant portion of the student body is politically active. Claremont McKenna has traditionally been the most conservative among the schools in the consortium. Students at Claremont McKenna have a student government, and many involved pursue internships in Washington or politics while enrolled.