Published on August 2, 2021
Reviewed by Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D.
- Two-thirds of students who support social justice efforts believe they help drive change.
- Students' awareness of social justice issues has increased over the past year.
- Students primarily learn about social justice issues off campus.
Student activism on and off college campuses has helped shape higher education for centuries. Following a year of increased student protests and demands for equality, we asked students to tell us more about the role social justice plays in their lives.
In a new BestColleges survey of 750 currently enrolled undergraduate students, 58% of respondents reported that they have actively supported one or more social justice efforts in the past year. An additional 30% reported that though they did not actively support social justice efforts, they considered doing so.
Of those that participate in these efforts, 65% agree that their support has an impact and helps drive change.
In addition to actively participating in social justice efforts, our survey found that students are generally more aware of issues surrounding marginalized and historically excluded communities than they were last year. And this awareness is causing many students to rethink their coursework and career choices.
Still, there is some uncertainty about how social justice issues affect students' relationships and communication with others. When asked whether they have been hesitant or found it difficult to discuss social justice issues with others, students were nearly evenly divided in their response.
Responses were also divided when students were asked whether their stance on social justice issues affected their relationship with those closest to them.
Students Are Increasingly Aware of Social Justice Issues
Seventy-two percent of surveyed students agree that their awareness of social justice has increased over the past year, with 39% reporting they strongly agree. Additionally, about half of students (46%) who have gotten involved in social justice efforts attribute their involvement to their knowledge of present issues.
When asked to rank their primary reasons for involvement, about a third of students (36%) felt motivated to partake in social justice efforts because the topic related to their own identity. Another third of students (37%) were motivated to get involved because the efforts addressed an underrepresented or marginalized group to which a friend or family member belongs.
Of those who selected "other" as any one of their reasons to get involved with social justice efforts, just under 37% of students wrote in responses crediting their personal belief systems. About 4% were motivated due to specific social justice topics like antiracism and women's rights, and about 9% got involved because they are members of or had a connection to a certain marginalized group.
Black respondents were most likely to get involved in social justice efforts because those efforts related to their own identity (51%), whereas Latino/a respondents were most likely to get involved because the efforts addressed an underrepresented or marginalized group to which a friend or family member belongs (49%).
Students Primarily Learn About Social Justice Issues Off Campus
When asked to rank their primary sources for learning about social justice issues, the majority of surveyed students credited their knowledge to off-campus resources like community groups and the media.
Of those who selected “other” as any one of their sources to learn about social justice, nearly 20% of the 113 students wrote in responses crediting social media as one of their primary sources. Another 20% credited the internet and online news, while about 7% of students credited print media like books and magazines.
Students Are Shifting Their Interests to Align With Social Justice Efforts
For many students, their increased participation in social justice efforts has shifted their interests and career pathways. Just under half of surveyed respondents (48%) report that their involvement in social justice efforts has impacted their career choices, while just over half (51%) report that their involvement has impacted their coursework choices.
Social justice topics that were of the highest interest and importance to surveyed students were race (61%), culture (60%), developmental and acquired disabilities (59%), and ethnicity and nationality (57%).
Fifty-four percent of Black students reported that race was of the highest importance of social justice issues they are interested in. This comes as no surprise, as 51% of Black respondents were primarily motivated to support social justice efforts because they addressed a topic related to their own identity. Black respondents were the most likely of any racial/ethnic group to choose race over other topics of importance, closely followed by Asian respondents (47%).
Just under a third of Latino/a respondents (29%) reported race as a topic of highest importance to their social justice interests, while one third (32%) reported culture as a topic of highest importance to their social justice interests.
Students’ high interest in race, culture, disabilities, and ethnicity correlates with their initial reasons for getting involved in social justice. It’s clear that students are using their increased awareness of these issues to make changes on and off their college campuses, and their support of social justice issues is also causing them to rethink the choices they make for their futures.
The survey was conducted from July 1 through 7 of 2021. Student respondents were fielded by Lucid LLC. Survey participants included 750 currently enrolled undergraduate students nationwide. Respondents were 18-25 years of age, enrolled at a community college, college, or university and pursuing an associate or bachelor's 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.
Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D., is the senior editor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at BestColleges. He is a scholar, writer, and editor working at the intersection of education, culture, and politics. Cobretti's research focuses on the experiences of minoritized student and faculty populations in higher education. His work has been published in the Journal of Negro Education, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Black Youth Project, and the National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs. Cobretti received his Ph.D. in higher education from Loyola University Chicago.
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