When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the Constitution did not guarantee a right to abortion, many expected the result to influence where students chose to enroll at college.
There were anecdotal reports of some students changing colleges, but the timing of the decision, in June, limited students from changing, especially at competitive colleges with strict May 1 deadlines for responding to an offer of admissions.
This is the first year when the decisions students are making about where to enroll will be after that Supreme Court decision—and after a palpable coarsening of relations between conservatives and liberals.
We won’t know the impact for sure until after the May 1 deadlines, or, for more colleges, until students actually enroll. But a new study from the Art & Science Group, being released today, found that nearly one in four high school seniors “ruled out institutions solely due to the politics, policies, or legal situation in the state” where the college was located. Further, the study found that “this behavior was statistically true across liberals, moderates and conservatives.”
In addition, Intelligent.com found that 91 percent of prospective college students in Florida disagree with the education policies of Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and one in eight graduating high school students in Florida won’t attend a public college there due to DeSantis’s education policies.
“Of those who aren’t likely to attend a public school, nearly half (49 percent) say it’s due to DeSantis’ education policies. This group makes up 12 percent of all prospective college students, including those who are in agreement with DeSantis’ education policies. Of students who are likely to attend a public school, 78 percent are concerned his education policies will negatively impact their education,” said Intelligent.com, a website focused on students.
The first thing about these studies is to gauge their significance. Most college students attend a college in their home state, and this has been the case for decades. And even states that send a lot of students out of state (say, California or Illinois) also import students. In fact California colleges (public and private) are 88.9 percent made up of Californians, and Illinois colleges have 88.2 percent of students from Illinois. Students who attend community colleges, the plurality of all students, stay close to home. And despite the extensive press coverage of the Ivies and the Universities of California, Michigan and Virginia, all which have tons of out-of-state applicants, they are not the norm.
David Strauss, a principal of Art & Science, which advises colleges on enrollment issues, said his study doesn’t have a large enough pool to determine which colleges are in danger of losing students. He suspects that Harvard and Yale Universities (and similar institutions) will be fine with conservative students, just as they have been fine even if they are known for attracting liberal students. The problem will be colleges that are a few spots below Harvard and Yale on the (ever-changing) prestige index.
What should colleges do in this environment, especially colleges in Southern states that value their liberal (and Northeastern or Midwestern) students or colleges in New York or Massachusetts that value their conservatives?
“Colleges ought to continue to advance their missions and their students,” he said. And the college should “make clear how they can help students” by communicating their intentions.
For instance, if a college wants to offer funds for travel out of state to students who need an abortion that may not be available, the college should state that.
But he acknowledged that this was new territory for colleges.
Details on the Survey
Liberals were more likely than conservatives to rule out a college because of its location, but only by a small margin (31 percent to 28 percent). Moderates were 22 percent, and 12 percent didn’t categorize themselves.
Other groups that were more likely to eliminate a college because of its location: LGBTQ students (32 percent versus 21 percent for straight students) and non-first-generation students (26 percent versus 19 percent for first-generation students).
In terms of where liberals and conservatives are ruling out colleges, liberals were most likely to be ruling out colleges in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Texas. But they also were against enrolling in Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina and Utah.
Conservatives ruled out colleges in California and New York.
“Among the quarter of students who ruled out a school in our survey, about a third (32 percent) passed over schools in their home state on the basis of a political or legal situation they found unacceptable,” the report said. “Interestingly, students who identified as Republican were significantly more likely to make that decision than were self-identified Democrats. While we don’t know for sure, this might make the most sense if many Republican students live in blue states, which tend to be heavily populated.”
The top reasons cited by liberals for eliminating a college from consideration were location in a state that was “too Republican,” too conservative on abortion laws, that showed a lack of concern on racial equity, too conservative on LGBTQ laws, too easy to get a gun and showed an inadequate focus on mental health.
Conservatives cited states as being too Democratic, too liberal on LGBTQ laws, conservative voices are “squashed” and having laws that are too liberal on abortion and reproductive rights.
“Likewise capturing a different kind of concurrence across the political spectrum: about one-third of both liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning students registered apprehension around the practice of free speech on campus, assuming that voices like theirs politically might be squashed at colleges or universities located in certain states,” the report said.
The findings were based on survey research fielded in January and February 2023, and it covered 1,865 domestic high school seniors. Respondents were 62 percent female and 62 percent white. The average reported household income was around $93,000. Responses were weighted by income, race, region and gender so that findings represent the larger domestic college-going population. The margin of error for this population of students is plus or minus 3.5 percent, Art & Science said.
“All this leads us to conclude that many prospective students are paying attention to political issues, be they general, longstanding perceptions and/or new and particular initiatives, and that is manifesting in the decisions of about a quarter of them to eliminate specific colleges and universities from their consideration sets. Liberal-leaning students are more likely to see an array of specific priorities playing out alarmingly in many states throughout the South and Midwest,” the report said. “Conservatives seem focused on a broader context and a more limited number of particular political issues.
“With political polarization on the rise, and all regions set to see declines in the number of high school graduates in coming years, lawmakers and campus administrators would do well to take student convictions into account as political change-making continues to infiltrate campus life. And importantly, as the regional student markets shift, institutions will likely need to pay particular attention to their individual and distinctive positioning in order to attract students in their market despite challenges posed by state social policies,” the report said.