College Students Call COVID-19, Racial Inequality Top Election Issues

A new BestColleges survey reveals that college students are motivated to vote by the coronavirus pandemic and racial inequality, but are split along partisan lines.
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Reece Johnson
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Reece Johnson is the editorial director for news and data. He writes about the future of work and higher education, student political activism, and expanding educational opportunities. Reece holds a master's degree from Columbia University and a bach...
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Anne Dennon
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Anne Dennon covers higher education trends, policy, and student issues for BestColleges. She has an MA in English literature and a background in research strategy and service journalism....
Updated on December 9, 2021
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  • Over 62% of respondents say that 2020 has changed the issues most important to them.
  • Almost 60% of college students are motivated to vote by a specific candidate.
  • Racial inequality is a top issue for 52% of student Democrats and 17% of Republicans.
  • COVID-19 is a top issue for 45% of student Democrats and 33% of Republicans.

Despite widespread campus shutdowns, college students have remained socially engaged and politically active. Many joined protests across the country in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and in the midst of a pandemic, some even sued colleges for tuition refunds.

Now, energized by issues that directly affect their lives, college students are ready to cast their votes. A new survey from BestColleges reveals that a plurality of young college-goers (40%) consider COVID-19 and racial inequality the top issues motivating them to vote in the 2020 election.

Conducted September 10-15, the survey asked about the political preferences, registration statuses, and demographics of college students aged 18-23. The 1,002 respondents were all enrolled in undergraduate programs at four-year universities, community colleges, or vocational schools at the time of the survey.

Though their studies might be confined to a computer screen, college students have been greatly impacted by the events unfolding around them.

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A majority of respondents (62%) report that 2020 has changed what issues are most important to them. This finding suggests that, though their studies might be confined to a computer screen, college students have been greatly impacted by the events unfolding around them.

"Despite voting in lower numbers, college students are not politically apathetic or disengaged," said Melissa Venable, Ph.D., a college instructor and advisor for BestColleges. "College students are concerned about the issues, most especially those focused on social injustice, racial inequality, and the ongoing effects of the pandemic."

A little under half (49%) [of college students] said social media will directly impact their vote.

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Part of what is keeping college students plugged in this election year is social media. When asked how they keep informed, 36% of respondents said they use social media for news about the upcoming election, followed by TV news (21%) and online news sites (19%).

A little under half (49%) said social media will directly impact their vote, just behind televised debates (52%) and ahead of news coverage (49%), political convention coverage (43%), printed mail (54%), online ads (47%), and candidate TV commercials (46%).

These findings may help explain why college voters are galvanized around issues of racial inequality, among other movements. A recent study from Pew Research Center concluded that social media has led many adults to change their views on certain issues, including Black Lives Matter.

Though college students care a great deal about social injustice and other vital issues like the economy, what motivates them the most may not be issue-specific. On election day, their votes may hinge on the presidential candidates themselves.

Almost 60% of Students Motivated to Vote by a Specific Candidate

When asked the open-ended question, "What is motivating you to vote this year?" nearly 6 in 10 students mentioned a particular candidate by name. Among all written responses, there were 377 mentions of President Donald Trump — but only about 6% were positive. By comparison, Democratic nominee Joe Biden was mentioned just 60 times.

Among all written responses, there were 377 mentions of Trump — but only about 6% were positive.

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The sitting president has been a mobilizing factor for college voters. "I wanna vote to kick out Donald Trump out of [the] presidency because he hasn't done anything about the Black Lives Matter movement, the police brutality, and the virus," wrote one respondent.

Another wrote: "The country has been doing well under President Trump, despite all of the division. Until [COVID-19], unemployment was extremely low [and] tax cuts to the wealthy allowed them to create more jobs."

In this open-ended question, the majority of college students offered opinions for or against President Trump, but several respondents praised Biden: "Joe Biden is a significant figure and was a former vice president," one respondent wrote. "Joe Biden is mentally tough and capable of making great change to the United States of America."

While students expressed strong views about President Trump's job performance, there is a general lack of enthusiasm for either presidential candidate among college voters. Less than half (41%) of the students in our survey reported that there is a presidential candidate on this year's ballot who represents their political beliefs.

A low affinity for the presidential candidates was particularly strong for students with no party affiliation, among whom only 20% identified with a candidate on the ballot compared to 49% of student Democrats and 55% of Republicans.

This low affinity for the candidates also extends to students of color. Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx college students are 10-11 percentage points less likely to agree than white students that one of the presidential candidates represents their political beliefs.

College Voters Are Split Along Partisan and Gender Lines

The BestColleges survey shows that a majority of college-aged students identify with a major political party (62%), while 23% do not identify. Forty-two percent of the respondents identified as Democrats, 20% identified as Republicans, and 8% preferred not to say.

The survey also found that college students who identified with a national party are significantly more likely to vote in the presidential election, with 85% Democrats and 83% of Republicans indicating their intention to vote versus 52% of students who did not identify.

In addition, partisan voters are more likely to be registered voters — but that's about all partisan voters have in common. When it comes to election issues, there's a wide gap between students who identify as Republicans and Democrats.

Republican students care most about the economy, with 42% of them raising it as a top election concern in 2020. Compared to their Democratic peers, they also care more about taxation, immigration, and foreign policy, and less about the environment and healthcare.

Democratic students, by contrast, care the most about racial inequality, COVID-19, the environment, and climate change. While 40% of all students and 52% of Democratic students listed racial inequality as one of the three most important election issues, only 17% of Republican students did the same.

Another rift — though less pronounced — is evident in how students perceive the threat of COVID-19. While 45% of Democratic students said it's one of the top three concerns in this presidential election, only 33% of Republican students said the same.

Education, an issue area that stands to be seriously impacted by the election, is about equally important to both Democratic (20%) and Republican students (23%). Education is even more important to students who do not identify with a political party (27%) or chose not to share it (29%).

“College students place considerable value on their education, regardless of party affiliation.”. Source: — Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

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"Education here could encompass a number of related issues, including college affordability, the student debt crisis, or even the need to provide quality education to everyone," said Venable. "It's remarkable that roughly equal percentages of Republican, Democratic, and nonpartisan students value education in our survey. This shows that college students place considerable value on their education, regardless of party affiliation."

In a previous BestColleges report, we found that only 31% of college students believed 2020 would be a free and fair election. Interestingly, just 21% of students with no party affiliation felt this way compared to 35% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans.

Party affiliation isn't the only dividing line on student voter issues. For example, women are more likely than men to identify racial inequality (44% vs. 33%), gender and sexual orientation inequality (22% vs. 11%), and abortion (20% vs. 10%) as top issues. Men are more likely to choose the economy (33% vs. 22%) and taxation (13% vs. 7%).

With the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the subsequent confirmation battle in the U.S. Senate, gender equality and women's reproductive rights are sure to be flashpoints for women voters in college.

"These gender differences aren't surprising," explained Venable. "Overall, college students are just like any other voter bloc. They represent a variety of demographic groups with shared and often opposing viewpoints based on their unique backgrounds and experiences."

While the BestColleges survey can provide clues into the issues and candidates college students care about, only the results on election day will show whether these young, educated Americans will vote their values in 2020.

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The survey was conducted September 10-15, 2020. All respondents were fielded by Lucid LLC. Survey participants included 1,002 college students nationwide. Respondents were 18-23 years of age; attending a community college, trade/technical school, or college/university; and pursuing an associate, bachelor's, or trade/technical degree.

Feature Image: Drew Angerer / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images North America is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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