Colleges are often recognized as centers of political activism because they allow people to exchange ideas and understand new cultures. Historically, university students have played pivotal roles in protest movements, including for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. To this day, students organize sit-ins, walk-outs, and other political demonstrations.
However, some schools enjoy a more vibrant political scene: The most politically active colleges host extensive networks of organizations that allow for undergraduate political involvement. These organizations include party-affiliated groups, nonpartisan debate clubs, and groups devoted to social justice. The best schools for student activists also boast robust political science courses in government and political economy for students seeking political careers.
The schools on this list also produce many alumni who work as government officials, representatives, or activists: The campus culture prepares them academically, professionally, and personally to enter the political arena after graduation.
Columbia University in the City of New York
|New York City, NY||
Established in 1754 as King's College, Columbia University has since become a hotbed of political activity. The school has a long history of political protest: Columbia students famously sparked a wave of political action in colleges across the U.S. when they demonstrated against the Vietnam War in 1968. Students also protested the university's affiliation with the U.S. Department of Defense and rallied against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
This trend of social and political activism continues to this day, and the school supports 50 student groups devoted to advocacy and political issues. The Columbia Political Union promotes political discussion and civic engagement from students of all political backgrounds. Columbia Students Against Mass Incarceration seeks to spread awareness about the prison-industrial complex. Presidents Obama, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt attended Columbia University.
University of California-Los Angeles
|Los Angeles, CA||
Located in one of the most progressive U.S. states, UCLA supports student political engagement through a diverse array of clubs and academic programs. Students at UCLA can choose from almost 50 student-run political organizations. The university boasts partisan clubs like Bruin Republicans and Bruin Democrats, as well as bipartisan organizations like the Bruin Political Union. Bruins Elect aims to elect liberal candidates to local, state, and federal offices through direct action and education.
In addition, the school features many special interest advocacy groups: Bruins for a Safer America, for example, advances gun safety in schools. During election seasons, the group works to register and educate voters about gun policy. The organization also sends members of its student lobbying team to discuss policy with state and federal officials. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand graduated from the UCLA School of Law.
Though this small liberal arts college only serves 3,000 students, Wesleyan University is very politically active. Students have established more than 40 political and activist groups dedicated to domestic issues like mass incarceration, environmental sustainability, and abortion. Students also discuss global issues in groups like WesForPeace, a club that meets to discuss alternatives to U.S. military intervention. Students engage with Middle Eastern politics through clubs like Jewish Voice for Peace, Wesleyan United with Israel, and Students for Justice in Palestine.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson founded and coached the Wesleyan debate team when he was a professor at the school. Today, the Woodrow Wilson Debate Society at Wesleyan continues to encourage political thought and discourse. Similarly, the Wesleyan Political Union holds biweekly discussions about foreign policy and political issues.
University of Chicago
The University of Chicago, a prestigious private research university, serves as a hub for political activism and education in the Midwest. The university has historically produced important political science research: Herbert Simon, the very first political scientist to earn a Nobel Prize, earned his doctorate at the school. Other notable alumni include presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and President Obama's chief campaign strategist David Axelrod.
Students can get involved in the campus political scene through close to 40 organizations and publications. The university boasts campus chapters of prominent national organizations like Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union. In addition, students can join university-specific groups like the UChicago Coalition for Immigrant Rights, a collection of students, faculty, and staff that advocate for the immigrant community. The Chicago Journal of Foreign Policy provides a platform to undergraduates interested in researching and discussing foreign relations issues.
|New Haven, CT||
Through dozens of student groups and several academic initiatives, Yale University promotes political action and intellectual exploration in the field. The school operates a political science department and the interdisciplinary Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS). ISPS sponsors an undergraduate major in ethics, politics, and economics, and also supports numerous research centers including the Policy Lab and the Center for the Study of American Politics. Five U.S. presidents and heads of state from Italy, Turkey, Mexico, Germany, and the Philippines have earned Yale degrees.
Politically active students can participate in clubs and contribute to publications. Yale's Federalist Party functions as a conservative debating society that addresses issues including economics, religion, and foreign policy. The Yale Politic, an undergraduate journal, covers U.S. politics and culture through longform print pieces and online articles.
Georgetown University overlooks the Potomac River just a few miles from the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Unsurprisingly, Georgetown has a reputation as one of the most politically active colleges in the U.S. The school features numerous politically motivated groups, including the Georgetown Israel Alliance, which seeks to advance understanding of political and cultural issues in the Middle East. The Georgetown Women in Public Policy Initiative aims to increase female representation in politics and public policy. The university's Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service fosters student action through mentoring opportunities and courses.
The school also offers many political academic programs, including majors in international political economy and international politics. The university has graduated numerous governors, diplomats, and heads of state. President Clinton and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly earned degrees from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.
Located in Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith College is a private women's liberal arts college. The school's vibrant political scene includes nearly 30 politically oriented student organizations. The Republican Club aids campaigns of Republican politicians, and Smith Democrats unites liberal students. Smith's Young Democratic Socialist Organization fosters discussion about democratic socialism in the U.S., though Smith's activist groups also examine global issues: The school's chapter of Liberty in North Korea raises awareness of human rights abuses in North Korea. Smith Students for Justice in Palestine calls attention to Palestinian struggles and promotes discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The school's academic offerings also reflect its political activity. Students at the school's department of government study public opinion, political development, and political economy while focusing on the role of gender and race in politics. Smith's Environmental Science and Policy program introduces students to policy issues in sustainability.
George Washington University
The United States Congress chartered George Washington University in 1821, one of only five universities in the country with a Congressional charter. The university's main campus is in the District of Columbia, just a few blocks away from the White House and the U.S. State Department. In addition, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are located on GW's campus. The school boasts a long list of prominent political alumni including the current leaders of Togo, Pakistan, and Bermuda.
George Washington University's students pursue political activism through on-campus organizations: The school's chapter of Democracy Matters works to eliminate corporate influence in politics. Fossil Free GW develops strategies for the university to divest from fossil fuels and direct funds towards environmentally sustainable technologies. The GWU Progressive Student Union hosts events to raise awareness of inequity on campus and in the larger District of Columbia community.
College of William and Mary
Founded in 1693, the College of William and Mary is the second-oldest higher education institution in the U.S. The school boasts a long history of educating future political leaders, and distinguished alumni include Presidents Jefferson, Monroe, and Tyler. The trend of political thought and activity at William and Mary continues to this day: In 2014, students organized a Black Lives Matter march that attracted protesters from surrounding areas.
Students engage in political discourse through over 20 student organizations. The Monitor, a student-run foreign studies journal, publishes student research on international political issues. The latest issue features articles on drone warfare and Russian cyberattacks. The college's chapter of the American Constitution Society promotes discussions on constitutional issues and advances a progressive reading of the Constitution. Speak Up, Speak Loud unites students interested in fighting for political causes through grassroots organizing and legislative advocacy.
|St. Paul, MN||
Located in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Macalester College is a small liberal arts school with just over 2,000 students. Macalester lists civic engagement as a core part of its mission, and students have been politically involved for decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, Macalester students demonstrated against the Vietnam War, marching to the Capitol building in St. Paul. Students went on strike after the Cambodian invasion of 1970, and the school's president ended the academic year early.
Many of Macalester's activist organizations focus on race issues: Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Coalition supports discussions of current political and social problems affecting Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora. The Black Liberation Affairs Committee aims to bring awareness to the political, social, and cultural issues that impact the African-American community. The Macalester Association for Sub-Continental Ethnic and Cultural Awareness informs the campus community on political issues in India and surrounding countries.
American University was chartered by an act of Congress in 1893. The school is located in the District of Columbia and offers many academic programs for politically-inclined students looking to work in public service or activism. In addition to a bachelor's program in political science, the school offers an interdisciplinary degree in communications, legal institutions, economic, and government. American University's School of Public Affairs also operates a selective program in politics, policy, and law for students looking to make a political impact.
American University's 20 political clubs include Voto Latino, a progressive organization that engages Latino voters through grassroots and cultural events. The school also hosts a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group that advocates for limited government, free enterprise, and individual freedom. Notable graduates of American University include dozens of U.S. representatives, senators, and diplomats, as well as President Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Located in Haverford, Pennsylvania, Haverford College is a very small liberal arts college. The school was founded as a Quaker institution, and students continue to uphold the Quaker values of peace and anti-war sentiment. In 1967, students held Vietnam War demonstrations on campus and marched on the Pentagon. In 1970, after the Kent State shooting and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, students and faculty travelled to the District of Columbia to speak with lawmakers and protest.
This trend of political action continues today through Haverford's many advocacy clubs. The Student Political Network holds weekly meetings to discuss current political issues. In addition to traditional party-affiliated organizations, Haverford supports environmental clubs: Haverfordians for a Livable Future brings awareness to climate change by staging protests, organizing direct action, and hosting events. The school has produced numerous government officials and political journalists.
Gettysburg College supports political discourse and activism through student-run clubs and academic offerings. Gettysburg boasts one of the highest densities of politics students of any college in the country, with close to 11% of students enrolled in a politics-focused major. The school's Eisenhower Institute, with an office in the District of Columbia, prepares undergraduates for public policy work through academic programs and access to experts. The institute's Inside Politics mentorship program develops students' knowledge of political parties, campaigns, and the American presidency.
Through clubs on campus, students learn about U.S. and world politics. The school's Model Congress demonstrates the inner workings of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. By participating in Model Arab League, can learn about politics and diplomacy in the Middle East. Renowned Libertarian Ron Paul graduated from Gettysburg, and the college's Young Americans for Liberty club advances libertarian causes.
Lafayette College is a private liberal arts college in Easton, Pennsylvania. The school prides itself on many party-affiliated clubs like College Democrats, Lafayette College Republicans, and Lafayette Young Democratic Socialists of America. The college also boasts nonpartisan political clubs that foster open discussion of current issues. Lafayette's chapter of No Labels joins Republicans, Democrats, and independents for political activism and deliberation on campus. The school's Open Debate Club promotes awareness of political diversity, and provides a forum for students of all political leanings to engage in meaningful discussions. The StandUp Social Media Blog serves as an online forum for students to discuss campus and world social justice issues.
Lafayette College's major in government and law includes courses on social movements, political behavior, and U.S. foreign policy. Through the interdisciplinary religion and politics program, undergraduates can study the impact of religion on politics.
Davidson College is a private liberal arts college in Davidson, North Carolina. A great deal of Davidson students stay involved in politics in the classroom and in their extracurriculars. Political science is among the most popular majors at the college, with close to 15% of undergraduates enrolled in the degree. The political science department offers the Davidson in Washington program, an eight-week course that enables students to intern in District of Columbia offices. Participating students have worked for congressmen, the White House, the Chamber of Commerce, and other organizations.
The school's Center for Political Engagement fosters political activity on campus by hosting discussions and lectures. The school's chapter of the Roosevelt Institute promotes discourse on domestic political issues and fosters a progressive campus community. Students also engage in campus politics; Divest Davidson advocates for the college to divest its endowments from fossil fuel companies.
Established in 1800, Middlebury College is a private liberal arts college and the oldest higher education institution in Vermont. A historically progressive school, Middlebury was the first institution in the U.S. to grant a bachelor's degree to an African American and began accepting women in 1883. Middlebury students were highly politically active in the 1960s and 1970s in response to the Vietnam War and the Kent State shooting.
Today, the school boasts many activist organizations that tackle U.S. and world issues. Go/Refuge assists and advocates for refugees, while Stop Traffick brings attention to the worldwide issue of human trafficking. Middlebury features a balance between liberal groups like College Democrats and conservative groups like the American Enterprise Institute Club and the Middlebury Young America's Foundation Chapter. Middlebury has produced seven governors of Vermont.
Colby College prides itself on a strong history of political activism on campus. In an early act of political protest, students formed the Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. In the 1960s and 1970s, Colby students held vigils and protests. In recent years, students have organized sit-ins and other demonstrations against school policies.
Students remain politically motivated to this day, evidenced by the variety of political organizations operating on campus. Colby Democrats meets biweekly to develop strategies for electing democratic candidates, while Colby Republicans promotes conservative values, stimulates debate, and encourages faculty to include more conservative thought in their lectures and assignments. EnviroCo, Colby's environmental activism club, promotes environmentally sustainable practices on campus. Students can also contribute to the political conversation on campus through Outside Colby, a publication dedicated to U.S. and world issues.
Dartmouth College, founded in 1769, is one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the country. A member of the Ivy League, the school has graduated many distinguished alumni, including 170 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Robert Reich, who served in the administrations of Presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton, earned his BA from Dartmouth.
The school fosters political discourse on campus through three student-run political publications. The Dartmouth Political Times, a nonpartisan online newspaper, covers local and national political issues. The Dartmouth Radical, a progressive publication, reports on campus activism and issues. The school's Undergraduate Journal of Politics, Economics, and World Affairs publishes research from undergraduates from colleges across the country. Other notable political groups include the Coalition for Israel-Palestine, which promotes discussion between both viewpoints of the conflict.
Union College was established in 1795 in Schenectady, New York. The school's political science department stresses fundamental concepts in government and provides numerous experiential learning opportunities. Students conduct independent research and work with local organizations to influence regional political decisions. The school also partners with the New York State Legislature and organizations in the District of Columbia to offer summer internship programs. Many students also work for local government agencies while in school.
The school has over 100 clubs, including many devoted to political activism and awareness. Campus Action promotes social change on campus and in the local community. Union's Activist Network allows students to exchange ideas and plan events with the aim of protecting civil liberties. Students can also participate in the campus political scene through the Union Banner, a student-run political newspaper that calls attention to local, national, and international issues.
Grinnell College, a small private liberal arts college, enrolls just 1,699 students. Founded in 1846, the school boasts a strong commitment to social justice. In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech to thousands in the school's gymnasium. Listening to King's speech inspired black students to form the Concerned Black Students organization, which remains active. In addition, Grinnell students get involved in politics through more than a dozen political groups on campus. RISE Grinnell unites progressive activists on campus -- members attend protests and rallies to bring awareness to political issues. Student Athletes Leading Social Change has the unique mission of inspiring college athletes to enact change through sports, education, and leadership.
Grinnell also excels in political education. The school offers a major in political science, and the European studies major includes a concentration in social and political movements and institutions.
Kenyon College's students and faculty have been involved politically and socially for decades. In 1860, in light of growing tensions in the U.S., Kenyon's president wrote a letter to President Buchanan suggesting a national day of prayer. In 1968, the school hosted a Public Affairs Conference where students, journalists, politicians, and civil rights leaders discussed modern democracy and media. In 2015, around 100 students and staff participated in a sit-in for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Students participate in the campus, national, and international political discussion through a host of clubs. The Environmental Campus Organization advocates for sustainable practices on campus, and promotes awareness of environmental issues. Members of the International Affairs Society meet weekly to discuss global issues and partake in Model UN meetings. The Israel Club connects students concerned with political issues in Israel and surrounding regions.
Students at Furman University engage with local and national political issues in their academic work and in their free time. Politically-minded students can study in Furman's department of politics and international affairs, which hosts student seminars on political thought and brings prominent intellectuals to speak on campus. Furman's Riley Institute of Government, Politics, and Public Leadership prepares students to tackle crucial political issues in South Carolina and the U.S. The Shi Center for Sustainability fosters research and education in environmental sustainability.
Outside of the classroom, Furman students join clubs like Conservative Students for a Better Tomorrow, which informs the campus community on conservative viewpoints. Through the Global Issues Forum, students discuss challenges currently facing the world. In addition, the Furman Debate Society encourages political discussion on campus through student debates and faculty panel conversations. Furman has produced several U.S. congressmen and three governors of South Carolina.
Hillsdale College, a predominantly conservative college in Hillsdale, Michigan, is home to a great deal of political thought and activity. Politics majors study the founding of the American political system in courses on federalism, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution. The school also offers an interdisciplinary major in political economy, which blends courses in politics, economy, and history. Through the Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program, politics students participate in semester-long internships in the nation's capital.
Student-run political groups on campus include conservative groups like Young Americans for Freedom and College Republicans. Students also participate in libertarian organizations like Young Americans for Liberty and the Federalist Society, one of only two collegiate federalist societies in the country. The Classical Liberal Organization draws inspiration from thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, and Benjamin Franklin.
|Hamilton Village, NY||
Students at Colgate University stay politically active in the campus community with almost a dozen political groups on campus. The school includes College Democrats and College Republicans clubs for students looking to organize and advocate with like-minded students. The Colgate Political Caucus, on the other hand, accepts students of all political affiliations who want to talk politics and exchange ideas. Similarly, the Colgate Political Review, a student-run publication, provides a platform for students to share their political perspectives and opinions, regardless of party affiliation.
In 1968, students and faculty on campus rallied against a fraternity's discriminatory practices, staging a sit-in in the administration building. In 2015, students continued this trend of protest by starting the #CanYouHearUsNow movement to promote diversity and inclusivity on campus.
Bates College traditionally attracts politically-minded students, and over 12% of the student body majors in politics. The college has produced many distinguished alumni in the political arena, including senators, congressmen, federal officials, and activists. U.S. Attorney General, Senator, and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy graduated from Bates in 1945. In addition, Edmund Muskie, U.S. Secretary of State from 1980-1981, went to Bates.
The school's course offerings in politics include topics concerning race, gender, and class. The gender, power, and politics class explores how gender influences politics. Another course examines social movement theory through case studies of LGBTQ movements. Outside the classroom, students can learn about and discuss international issues through the Model U.N. club. Activists on campus can also connect through Bates Student Action, a group that addresses social and political issues on campus and in Maine.
We evaluated the schools below using academic and extracurricular factors, judging each institution by the degree of academic interest in politics among students and by the level of political engagement on campus. For the first category, we ranked schools based on the percentage of undergraduates majoring in politics or government. To determine the level of political activity outside of the classroom, we looked at the number of political, activist, and advocacy groups operating on campus.