Inflation and Abortion, Not Student Debt, Are Top Election Issues for College Students

A new BestColleges survey suggests that the economy, employment, and inflation — along with abortion — are the most important midterm election issues for current and prospective college students.

Updated October 18, 2022

Edited by Reece Johnson
Inflation and Abortion, Not Student Debt, Are Top Election Issues for College Students
Survey Reports
Photo by Joe Raedle / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images


Data Summary

  • While men overwhelmingly chose the economy as their top issue (44%), abortion is the most important issue for college women (43%).
  • Student debt was only the eighth most important political issue (18%), with students ranking it behind racial inequality (28%), healthcare (27%), and climate change (22%).
  • Over two-thirds of respondents (68%) say they are registered to vote, and another 16% plan to register before November.
  • Only 39% of students say they trust the U.S. political system and less than half (43%) believe the 2022 midterm will be a free and fair election.
  • Only 23% of women and 20% LGBTQ+ students expressed trust in the U.S. political system.
  • BIPOC students are less likely than white students to believe that election outcomes make a difference in their daily lives (46% vs. 54%).

Despite student debt filling headlines since President Biden's announcement of an expansive student loan forgiveness plan, a new survey shows college affordability may not be top of mind for most students leading up to the 2022 midterm election.

BestColleges surveyed over 1,000 current and prospective undergraduate and graduate students about their voting plans and political beliefs.

The economy, employment, and inflation earned the most responses from students, with 37% selecting this bundle as a top election issue. These concerns are closely followed by abortion (33%), gun control/policy (30%), and racial and ethnic inequality/rights (28%).

Our results also suggest college students are poised and ready to vote their minds in this year's midterms. Over two-thirds of respondents (68%) say they are registered to vote. That's on par with Census Bureau estimates from the 2018 midterms, when 67% of voters with some college education were registered to vote.

Another 16% of current and prospective students we surveyed say they plan to register before the November election. Of survey respondents who are registered to vote, nearly 8 in 10 (79%) say they plan to vote in the midterms.

The majority of respondents (43%) lean Democrat and 22% identify as Republican. College students in our survey may be more partisan than the general population when compared to Gallup's September nationwide poll, which leans independent.

The Economy and Abortion Top Student Concerns, but Not Evenly

While students overall selected the economy and abortion as their top two issues heading into the midterm election, there are notable differences between some student populations.

Women are more than twice as likely as men to consider abortion an important issue in the midterms (43% vs. 21%). For men, the economy, gun policy, healthcare, racial and ethnic inequality, and climate change all came out ahead of abortion as leading issues.

In fact, men are much more likely than women to select the economy as a top concern (44% vs. 32%). White men, in particular, are overwhelmingly concerned about the economy, employment, and inflation, with almost half (49%) selecting this bundle as their top political issue — a significantly higher percentage than other demographic groups.

Students who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) expressed greater concern over COVID-19 in our most recent poll than white students. One in five BIPOC students (20%) ranked it as a top issue, compared to just 15% percent of white students.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that COVID-19 has disproportionately harmed Black, Latina/o, and Alaska Native and American Indian people. The pandemic continues to exacerbate issues that disproportionately impact BIPOC students, such as health injustice and student loan debt.

BIPOC students are also more likely than white students to say that gun policy/control (33% vs. 28%) and racial inequality (31% vs. 27%) are key political issues.

LGBTQ+ students ranked several issues as higher priority than the economy, including abortion, gender and sexual orientation inequality, racial and ethnic inequality. Overall, LGBTQ+ students are three times as likely as straight students to consider gender and sexual orientation inequality a top political concern (36% vs. 12%).

Student Trust in Politics Is Low but May Be Improving

Current and prospective students report very low trust (29%) in the U.S. political system. Almost a third (30%) also do not feel represented in national elections, and less than half (43%) believe the 2022 midterms will be a free and fair election. Yet, the majority of students (66%) still believe voting matters.

Some students have even less trust in politics. Only 23% of women surveyed and one in five (20%) LGBTQ+ students express trust in the U.S. political system.

BIPOC students surveyed are less likely than white students to feel represented in national elections (30% vs. 36%). And they were less likely to believe that election outcomes make a difference in their daily lives (46% vs. 54%).

Trust and voting beliefs also vary by party affiliation. While over 70% of students from both parties agree that voting matters, student Democrats (60%) are more likely to feel election outcomes in their daily lives compared to Republicans (50%). Democrats (54%) are also far more likely than Republicans (39%) to believe this midterm will be free and fair.

Those who identify with the major parties equally lack trust in the political system. Just over a third (35%) in either party say they trust the U.S. political system.

Entering the 2020 presidential election, we surveyed current undergraduate students ages 18-23. This group demonstrated slightly lower trust in government and less faith in the electoral process compared to our 2022 survey.

The 2022 congressional elections take place on Tuesday, November 8. Visit our student voting guide to register to vote and get involved in the issues.

Methodology

The survey was conducted from September 28-October 3, 2022, and was fielded by Pure Spectrum. Survey participants included 1,002 respondents nationwide who were currently enrolled in or planning to enroll in an on-campus or hybrid undergraduate or graduate degree program at a college or university in the next 12 months. Respondents were 16-59 years of age and currently pursuing or planning to pursue an associate, bachelor's, master's, doctoral, or professional degree. The respondents for the survey were screened by various quality checks, including systems like Relevant ID, and responses were manually reviewed to ensure consistency and accuracy.