A recent study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute suggests that students become more liberal during their college years – largely because of peers and left-leaning organizations on campus.
The study tracked nearly 15,000 students from when they entered their freshman year in 2004. Many students shifted noticeably to the left on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and religion once they began college. The study found that right-leaning students often are concentrated in a small number of colleges. At most colleges, it alleges, there are more left-leaning peer groups and more liberal students.
According to St. John’s Government and Politics Professor Diane Heith, political opinions are generally “formulated by your connections.”
“If you have a friend who is passionate about politics, it might rub off on you,” she said. “Or it might cause tension if they are in opposition to what your parents think.”
Heith added that the St. John’s campus is filled with students of diverse political opinions, and that her classes seem to be reflective of the country, with around 40 percent of students Democrat, 40 percent Republican, and 20 percent undecided.
Although, she admitted, there seems to be slightly more Democrats in her classes. In terms of political organizations on campus, St. John’s boasts both a College Democrats and College Republicans.
According to junior Ian Rivera, communications director for St. John’s College Democrats, the SJU chapter of College Democrats has had a “100 percent turnaround compared to years past.” The group had 55 members at its first official meeting of this year and has a mailing list of 185 students.
“Membership has exploded,” Rivera said. “We have students campaigning every weekend for state and national elections.”
Rivera said he agreed with the UCLA study, though he argued that students often grow more liberal in college because they have more opportunities to think for themselves.
“When kids are in high school, they believe solely what their parents tell them,” he said. “They get a whole new outlook by thinking for themselves, and often lean towards the left.”
Rivera also speculated the student body may be more liberal due to the University’s location.
“This is a democratic city, with people who tend to be more liberal leaning,” he said. “Most of our students are from here, so it makes sense that a lot of students are liberal.”
After a few years of being virtually inactive, College Republicans returned last Spring and now has around 50 members on paper.
Sophomore James Pickel, president of College Republicans, also said he agreed with the UCLA study.
“There is a stigma against being a young Republican,” he said. “Much of the broad shift in college students [towards liberal beliefs] is due to a lack of information on what conservative ideals really are.”
Pickel said that one of the goals of St. John’s College Republicans is to combat this “lack of information.”
He also said students seem more likely to influence their peers on campus than left-leaning professors.
“Professors I’ve had respect all opinions,” Pickel said.
“Students often come off with more of a mob mentality.”
Still, Pickel said that though he feels the student body leans left in terms of politics, the school, as a whole, is fairly conventional in “buying into the two-party American system.”
He added, “NYU, Columbia, even CUNY schools – they are more liberal than us, and [this] shows that we have a relative conservative leaning. There is far more talk of radical politics at those schools than St. John’s.”
St. John’s Government and Politics Professor Robert Pecorella said that he believes the number of Republican students on campus are “not nearly as numerous” as the number of Democrats.
“Republicans are a minority,” he said, “but quite capable of defending their views.”
Rivera seemed pleased that College Republicans is now a more active force on campus and thinks, regardless of the political leanings of the student body, it is important for students to simply educate themselves through both groups.
“Because we are a Catholic University, we need a balance,” he said. “I’m happy to have College Republicans around to engage the students.” Pickel agreed.
“In the past, there was less debate about issues,” he said. “With College Republicans growing, that will definitely change.”