Polarization Is About to Get a Lot Worse: Students Are Even More Divided Than We Are | Opinion

American students attending major research universities will be the country's future leaders, but they are likely to be more politically divided than in past generations.

These are the findings of a new Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) campus survey—an annual poll of tens of thousands of students with a goldmine of information on the demographics and political views of young Americans. What jumps out most from the survey is how important race, gender, religion and sexual identity is for their politics, and how unimportant their economic situation is. And because identity is more personal than economics, this suggests that political compromise will be even harder to achieve among the elite of tomorrow than it is today.

Let's start with sexual orientation. 23 percent of students, including 28 percent of female students, identify as LGBT. In a number of liberal arts colleges such as Smith and Wesleyan, up to half the student body identifies as something other than heterosexual. Relatedly, fewer than 5 percent of students say they are conservative.

Conservative identity, heterosexual identity, and religious identity are tightly correlated, the survey found.

FIRE 2020 and 2021 Campus surveys
FIRE 2020 and 2021 Campus surveys

Where once most students identified as heterosexual and Christian, neither is true today. This big jump in the size of the LGBT and nonreligious groups over time has been accompanied by a steady rise in female and minority students. While minorities have always leaned Left, female undergraduates have moved in a dramatically liberal direction, shifting nearly 15 points to the left since 2004, according to comprehensive Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) data. Against this, whites, Christians and men have not participated in the Leftward shift to anything like the same extent.

What this means is that female and minority students at universities—especially elite ones—seem to be increasingly diverging from women and minorities in the population more generally. According to the large-sample Cooperative Election Study (CCES) survey, minority females in the general public are 35 percent conservative and 31 percent liberal, while minority female students at top universities break a mere 9 percent conservative, with 64 percent liberal.

Conservative women and conservative minorities may be the most underrepresented groups on campus.

On the other hand, white male students who affiliate as Christian are more Republican than white male Christians in the general public. Whatever the force is that has pushed students Left seems to have mainly worked its magic on women, the nonreligious and minorities. It's had the opposite effect on white men.

Whites who identify as Christian or conservative seem to be emerging as a self-conscious group on campus, clustering more toward certain colleges. What appears to be happening is that white conservatives in red states are opting to study at local flagship colleges while their white liberal counterparts spread more evenly across the nation's campuses. Most white conservative students on these campuses report that they have conservative parents, whereas a somewhat larger share of white liberals say they have different views from their parents.

The high school a student attends also matters. Nearly half of those who were homeschooled are conservative, compared to the average of 23 percent. On the other hand, school choice doesn't appear to make much difference to sexual orientation; LGBT and non-binary identification is as common among undergraduates who were homeschooled or went to parochial schools as it is among those who went to public or private school.

The main take away is this: The liberal slant of undergraduates, combined with America's politically-divided geography and the tendency for white Christian conservatives to remain in red state systems has resulted in many leading colleges having little to no political diversity. Liberal arts colleges like Smith or Wesleyan are essentially liberal monocultures, while the share of conservatives in the Ivy League is only 10-15 percent. The De Santises and Hawleys are few and far between.

FIRE 2020, 2021 surveys
FIRE 2020, 2021 surveys

At the other end of the scale, even right-leaning red state colleges such as BYU, Clemson or Texas A&M are at least 30 percent liberal and less than 50 percent conservative. In fact, there are just a dozen-odd campuses where conservative students outnumber liberals. Only Hillsdale College is resoundingly right-wing, at around 80 percent conservative and 10 percent liberal.

The highest viewpoint diversity is in red state flagship colleges like the University of Arkansas, which has the most even mix of liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican, students in the country. The data also suggests that debate is more open at places like the University of Arkansas than in most top U.S. colleges.

The message for students is clear: A century ago, intellectuals from small midwestern towns sought out the freewheeling intellectual environments of major East Coast universities. Today, those who hanker after the free exchange of ideas should seek out the heartland.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, polarization may get a lot worse when these students graduate.

Eric Kaufmann is a professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London and is affiliated with the Manhattan Institute and the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.

The views in this article are the writer's own.