College campuses are political hot spots. Students are more political — and more politically divided — than ever, but together push for progressive reforms.

Political Issues Students Care About in 2020


  • Students are more politically engaged — and campuses more polarized — than ever.
  • Top social issues for college students include climate change and college affordability.
  • Activism around Black Lives Matter has made racial justice a strong priority for students.

College campuses have been political hot spots since the mid-1960s. Issues that dominated campuses during the Vietnam War look a lot like the current social issues college students care about in 2020. Like then, students today are rallying around civil rights and racial justice as a larger cultural rift continues to divide American politics.

The Trump presidency has sparked political activism for many young Americans on the left and right. Students are growing more political — and more politically divided — than ever before.

“More than 3 in 5 (61%) young Americans and 75% of likely voters agree that the outcome of the 2020 presidential election will make a difference in their lives …”

Despite the extreme partisan divide on campuses, young millennials and Gen Zers hold nuanced political views. Just over half (52%) of young voters supported the impeachment of President Trump, yet most college students lean progressive on social issues like same-sex marriage and hate speech.

College-aged voters also acted as a driving force behind the push for immigration reform, and even conservative-leaning students tend to have more progressive stances on issues like climate change and gun control. These trends suggest that, no matter their political leanings, students will vote their values in 2020.

Top Political Issues Students Care About in 2020

Do Students' Views Change in College?

Nearly half of students report changing their political leanings during college. College is a time of exploration. Gathering new information and perspectives from courses, instructors, campus groups, mentors, and peers often results in novel ways of thinking.

College students are also willing to debate their views. According to the Higher Education Research Institute's annual survey of incoming students, 71.7% "strongly agree" or "somewhat agree" that dissent is an important part of the political process.

Mental flexibility, and the willingness to change your mind, is a trait associated with intelligence. But college's tendency to change students' worldviews has long been assumed to run in one direction: the left.

Indeed, a positive correlation exists between higher levels of educational attainment and liberalism, and 30% of students claim they became more liberal in college.

While professors are largely assumed to be more liberal and outspoken about their beliefs, the student population itself remains politically diverse, with most identifying as moderate.

A college student in jeans and a t-shirt holds up a sign that reads Affordable Education while standing in front of the United States Capitol Building on a sunny day.

College Affordability

Although Republicans and Democrats are notoriously split on many issues in higher education, both sides agree that tuition costs are too high. Over the past several years, people have increasingly considered college affordability to be one of the nation's biggest problems. Student loan debt in the U.S. surpassed $1.6 trillion in 2019.

The potential rewards of going to college — including higher income and better career stability — are so great that many students take out whatever loans they need in order to enroll. The majority (67%) of 25-to-29-year-olds carry debt, and some say this burden is already affecting important life decisions.

In response to the college affordability crisis, some progressive policymakers propose mass student loan forgiveness and free college. Among young voters, Senator Bernie Sanders' plans to cancel debt and subsidize 100% of college tuition costs proved so popular that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has adopted portions of the policy in his own campaign.

However, a partisan divide exists over both debt forgiveness and free college. College students are evenly split over the question of debt forgiveness, with half favoring repayment flexibility or no policy change, and the other half urging forgiveness for either all or those most in need.

The notion of free college is more divisive. Whereas over 80% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favor making college tuition-free for all American students, 60% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents oppose the proposal.

Racial Justice

Racial justice is an enduring cause for college student activists. In recent weeks, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained sweeping momentum in the form of nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died while being physically restrained by a white Minneapolis police officer.

In addition to demanding an end to both white supremacy and police violence against unarmed Black people, students ask for equitable admissions and hiring processes; more inclusive curricula; and greater representation in the media, politics, and more.

College students agree the work is just beginning. In 2018, only a small proportion of first-year students (17.6%) believed that "racial discrimination is no longer a major problem in America." This figure changes when looking at specific populations. Across races, male students are twice as likely as female students to believe that race is not currently an issue.

“I am heartbroken that innocent men (and women) like George Floyd are killed because of their race. I am heartbroken that we’ve allowed and overlooked this violent hatred for so long.”

It's possible that the ongoing controversy over Floyd's death could change these opinions, however, as more youths in America come to grips with the racially charged issues that incited the current protests.

Regardless, most college students believe race remains a pressing issue and want institutions of higher education to take proactive measures to combat systemic racism. In 2018, more than three-fourths (75.7%) of first-year students agreed that colleges should prohibit racist speech on campus.

Another issue involves getting underprivileged students to campus and equipping them with the resources to succeed. Opportunity gaps hold back underprivileged students at the K-12 levels and during college preparation.

Colleges use grades and standardized test scores to make admission decisions, but both metrics are influenced by the opportunity gap. Data shows that academic success is tied to family income. While wealthy students receive tutoring and test prep, many low-income and minority students attend underfunded schools and are unable to prepare adequately for standardized tests.

Environment/Climate Change

Soaring carbon dioxide levels, rising global temperatures, and the acidification of the ocean — according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientific evidence for "[w]arming of the climate system is unequivocal."

We are already seeing signs of a changing climate in the record number of extreme weather events, but younger generations stand to see more — and worse — in their lifetime.

“The undergraduate college experience can be an ideal time and space for individuals to cultivate and foster pro-environmental behavior.”

Climate change is a major political issue for young people. In fact, the most prominent face of climate change activism today belongs to a teenager: 17-year-old Greta Thunberg.

Environmental programs and curricula have blossomed on college campuses, but students want to see change at a higher level. In the Spring 2019 Harvard Youth Poll, 46% of respondents felt that the "government should do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth." By contrast, only 32% agreed with this statement in the Spring 2015 Harvard Youth Poll.

Gun Control

In 2007, one of this century's deadliest school shootings occurred on Virginia Tech's campus. School shootings highlight the threat gun violence poses to youths and have prompted student protests and demonstrations, leading to a widespread shift in public opinion on firearms.

This desire to prevent shootings has not only galvanized young activists, but it also caused a surge in gun-control laws, particularly after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The issue hits close to home for students, whose organized pleas for change finally pushed forward policy that had spent years caught in partisan divides.

College Students' Views on Guns
Female Students Male Students Nonbinary Students
Favor Banning Assault-Style Weapons 83% 49% 73%
Favor Banning High-Capacity Magazines 83% 51% 74%
Believe People Are Safer When More People in a Community Own and Carry Guns 20% 47% 17%

Source: College Pulse

Through grassroots lobbying for anti-gun violence legislation, harnessing the power of the youth vote, and convincing others to vote against candidates who supported the National Rifle Association, state policies have begun to change nationwide. These relatively progressive gun control measures illustrate how student activists can help pave the way for change.

Gender Equality and Pay Gap

Equal Pay Day, which fell on March 21 this year, symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men made the previous year. As of 2018, the average woman working full time makes 81.6 cents on the dollar, compared to the average man working full time. Black and Hispanic women are most affected by the wage gap.

The gender pay gap varies by state and industry but exists at all educational levels. While college graduates earn more than high school graduates, women with bachelor's degrees make less than men with associate degrees.

While college graduates earn more than high school graduates, women with bachelor’s degrees make less than men with associate degrees.

This worrisome trend continues at the next two education levels. For example, a man with a bachelor's degree makes more than a woman with a master's. Education doesn't appear to resolve the pay gap, but research suggests it could.

Although women outpace men in higher education, men and women self-select into high-paying and low-paying majors, according to a Glassdoor study. If the pay gap is a pipeline problem, it is resolvable by empowering women to pursue careers in more lucrative fields, like tech and engineering.

However, the American Association of University Women points out that "[e]mployer practices — such as using prior salary history in setting current pay and prohibiting employees from discussing their wages — compound the problem."

A woman in a dark t-shirt and denim jacket holds up a small reporter's notebook with the message PAY EQUAL scrawled in Sharpie.

Campus Sexual Assault

Sexual assault has long roiled college campuses. While campus crime rates for burglary have declined over the past two decades, forcible sex offenses have risen.

The Association of American Universities' 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct found that the overall rate of nonconsensual sexual contact on college campuses was 13%, and the rate for female undergraduates was especially high (25.9%).

According to the survey, 1 in 4 undergraduate women experience nonconsensual sexual contact while going to school.

The vast majority of students believe nonconsenual contact qualifies as sexual assault. Nearly 86% of students strongly agree that sexual activity that occurs without the presence of explicit, affirmative consent (i.e., "yes means yes") is considered sexual assault.

Under Title IX guidance from the Obama administration, colleges were enjoined to believe victims and pursued a growing number of sexual assault allegations. This policy shift was credited with empowering victims and ushering in the #MeToo era.

New regulations from the Trump administration tighten colleges' investigations of sexual assault claims and place new emphasis on the presumption of innocence. These proposed changes have reignited victims' rights activism.

Healthcare

Health insurance affordability is a challenge for many college students. In a 2017 poll, 72% of college students and recent graduates faced challenges finding affordable health insurance. Students who attend colleges that don't provide health insurance through student fees may be priced out of insurance altogether by high premiums.

“[T]he high cost of college tuition … can exert considerable economic stress on this population and may tempt some students to see health coverage as nonessential luxury.”

While cash-strapped students may have a hard time paying for healthcare, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which passed in 2010, requires all Americans over 18 to carry a certain level of coverage. To lessen the burden of this requirement for young people, the ACA allows children to stay on their parents' insurance plan until the age of 26.

As a result of these measures, the percentage of uninsured college students dropped from 19.2% to 8.7% between 2010 and 2016.

Now, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing fears. According to the latest Harvard Youth Poll, concerns about healthcare among young Americans more than doubled between fall 2019 and spring 2020.