Alexis Hamilton contributed to the writing of this article.
How do college students feel about the Republican Party? Has this attitude changed in recent years? What do college students like most about the Republican Party? Least?
We ask these questions not because we are recent graduates who would have appreciated Republican company on campus, but because of the growing political importance of this demographic. The rate of college attendance in America is steadily increasing, with nearly 39 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds completing college or enrolled in a degree-granting institution in 2005. Moreover, it seems probable that a voter’s political inclinations are solidified in college and will persist after graduation: Most Americans don’t change their party affiliation after age 24.
Additionally, college students hit above their demographic weight because they are campaign foot soldiers, the future leaders of the government and big business, and they are more likely to vote than the non-college-educated.
The College-Educated and The Young
Unfortunately, very few surveys examine the political attitudes of college students, but by looking at the behaviors of college-educated voters of all ages and the youth vote, we can make some reasonable predictions about college students—an intersection of these two groups.
David Frum, Michael Barone, and others have pointed out that college-educated Americans are filing out of the Republican Party. In 1988, George H. W. Bush won the college-educated vote by 25 percentage points, but in 2008, the majority of college graduates voted for Barack Obama.
This downward trend is also visible with voters under 30—a demographic that comprises roughly 18 percent of the electorate. In 1984 and 1988, the Republicans won the majority of voters under 30. Even in 2004, when young voters seemed the sworn enemies of George W. Bush, the Republican Party still won 45 percent of their votes in the presidential election.
But in 2008, the dam broke. Only one out of every three young Americans voted for Republican Presidential candidate John McCain.
These trends make it likely that the Republican Party is not thriving on college campuses, but we hoped that surveying students at a variety of universities would shed some light on how the Party might court these voters.
The Republican Party at Tulane and Yale
We first looked for some answers at Tulane University and Yale University. At both schools, we surveyed 90 undergraduate students on their attitudes toward the Republican Party (special thanks to Matthew Scully, Tulane class of 2011, and Max Rosett, Yale class of 2012, for their assistance). True to the stereotype, students at Tulane and Yale seem to have no limit to their dislike of the Republican Party. But, beyond the anticipated antipathy toward the Republican Party, the results provide constructive ideas about how Republicans can start polishing their image to attract the college-educated.
The following scores are presented as:
[Issue Importance Rating // Issue Importance Ranking :: Party Performance Rating // Party Performance Ranking]
Issue Importance Rating (1 – Not Important; 10 – Highly Important)
Issue Importance Ranking (1 – Most Important; 25 – Least Important)
Party Performance Rating (1 – Poor Performance; 10 – Great Performance)
Party Performance Ranking (1 – Best Performance; 25 – Worst Performance)
The Four Es: Economy, Education, Energy, Environment.
Economy. Tulane — [8.59 // 1 :: 4.22 // 20] Yale — [8.16 // 2 :: 3.50 // 20]
That the economy ranks as one of the most important issues should come as no surprise. The majority of students at Tulane and Yale said the economy was “highly important,” which makes sense—after four years and a substantial investment of time and money, students want to have both a degree and serious job prospects in hand. Unfortunately, most students at Tulane and Yale do not consider the Party a competent steward of the economy, giving Republicans “poor performance” ratings in this area.
Education. Tulane — [8.40 // 2 :: 4.34 // 18] Yale — [8.61 // 1 :: 4.16 // 13]
The second “E” is education. Yale students gave education the top spot in issue importance ranking and those at Tulane said it was the second most important issue of the 25. In the free-response sections, students expressed dissatisfaction with “No Child Left Behind,” a program considered by many to be a hallmark of the Republican Party. Others, however, noted their approval of the Republican promotion of expanded school choice through vouchers and charter programs.
Energy. Tulane — [7.39 // 8 :: 4.22 // 21] Yale — [7.62 // 7 :: 3.47 // 21]
Environment — [7.45 // 6 :: 3.72 // 24] Yale — [7.58 // 9 :: 3.05 // 23]
As evidenced by the Presidential debates, energy policy and the environment have moved to center stage. To win students at Tulane and Yale, the Republican Party needs to appreciate the importance of these issues and develop clear policy objectives.
National Defense, at Home and Abroad
Military Strength. Tulane — [6.38 // 19 :: 6.66 // 1] Yale — [5.78 // 21 :: 6.59 // 1]
National Security. Tulane — [7.47 // 5 :: 6.16 // 2] Yale — [7.58 // 8 :: 5.35 // 4]
International Relations. Tulane — [7.63 // 4 :: 5.02 // 8] Yale — [7.68 // 5 :: 3.81 // 16]
This is not the generation of Vietnam—the Republican Party did not lose the college vote in 2008 because of a disagreement over military matters. Students at both Tulane and Yale approved of the Republican Party’s position on national security and military strength, and despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, international relations comfortably avoided the bottom of the policy ranking.
According to conventional wisdom, college students and the Republican Party are furthest separated by differing attitudes on social issues. The surveys from Tulane and Yale suggest that this is largely accurate, but of the five social issues assessed (abortion, gay rights, religion, social values, scientific development), two in particular deserve the Party’s immediate attention: gay rights and scientific development.
Gay Rights. Tulane — [6.30 // 21 :: 3.23 // 25] Yale — [6.34 // 17 :: 2.59 // 25]
Scientific Development. Tulane — [7.11 // 12 :: 3.89 // 23] Yale — [7.69 // 4 :: 3.67 // 18]
Gay rights doesn’t rank high on the importance scales of either school, but on no other issue is there such broad-sweeping discontent with the Party. The issue ranks dead last on Party performance for both Tulane and Yale, and even self-identified Republicans don’t celebrate the Party’s position on the issue—Republicans at Tulane gave the Party its worst score (5 out of 10) on gay rights. The Party’s stance on scientific development is slightly less reviled, but students rank it higher in importance than other social issues.