Survey Reveals College Students Are Reluctant to Discuss Controversial Topics

In the survey, 1 in 3 students say the fear of negative reactions or retribution from their peers is causing them to censor themselves.
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Jessica Bryant
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Jessica Bryant is a higher education analyst and senior data reporter for BestColleges. She covers higher education trends and data, focusing on issues impacting underserved students. She has a BA in journalism and previously worked with the South Fl...
Published on March 29, 2023
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  • Nearly 3 in 5 college students hesitate to discuss politics, religion, sexual orientation, race, and gender in the classroom.
  • Students primarily express reluctance about these discussions out of fear of negative backlash from their peers.
  • But only a small percentage of students say they would react to their peers' differing opinions with public or private criticism.

In college, students are often urged to think critically and speak freely, allowing for unique conversations and innovative ideas. But a new report reveals most students are censoring themselves for fear of backlash from their peers.

Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit advocacy group, surveyed 1,564 full-time college students ages 18-24 in November 2022. The group found that nearly 3 in 5 students (59%) are reluctant to speak about controversial topics like politics, religion, sexual orientation, race, and gender.

Across these five controversial topics, students were most likely to express reluctance toward speaking about politics.

Since 2019, the percentage of students who have expressed reluctance about discussing politics has increased by 9 percentage points.

Other topics students expressed hesitancy about discussing were abortion (29%), COVID-19 (16%), and free speech (13%).

Among varying demographic groups, Black students, self-identified Democrats, and students who reported their gender as "other" were the least reluctant to discuss all eight topics.

When providing open-ended responses, the primary reason students reported censoring themselves on controversial topics was fear of negative social consequences from other students (33%).

But when asked to select specific reasons why they hesitate to discuss controversial topics, a much larger percentage of students reported concerns about their peers making critical comments with each other after class (62%) and concerns that other students would find their commentary offensive (57%).

Despite these fears, only a small percentage of students report that they would react to their peers' differing opinions with criticism or contempt.

"There seems to be this shadow climate issue across college campuses that is making students much more fearful … even if they, themselves really just want to be able discuss different topics and ask other students questions," said Nicole Barbaro, Ph.D., one of the report's researchers, in an interview with BestColleges.

"[It's] unfortunate because college should be an environment where students are free to inquire about different things, ask other people questions, and have really interesting discussions."

Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, agrees and further states that part of the problem is students' lack of comfort and knowledge around free speech.

"A lot of students are coming to campus without much grounding in civics or understanding of the First Amendment or free expression issues," she said in an interview with BestColleges. "[They are also] coming into situations that often are incredibly more diverse than their high school experience."

In order for schools to combat students' self-censorship in the classroom, Barbaro believes there needs to be a top-down and bottom-up approach from campus leaders and faculty.

"There's a strong role for campus leaders to be putting out statements and setting that tone for the culture for what students should expect and … should be doing to be able to have these discussions," she said.

"But this also needs to occur with … faculty play[ing] a strong role of norm-setting in their own classrooms and making sure that when contentious topics are brought up … students feel comfortable express[ing] their viewpoints and engag[ing] constructively with their peers when they disagree with them."