To Students, Congress Tops 'American Idol'

April 5, 2007

College students are regularly criticized as being ignorant, self-absorbed and interested only in pop culture. But a new national study -- conducted by Tufts University researchers -- found that students know more about politics and civic life than many fear they do, and more than those in the same age group who are not in college.

The survey was conducted of people aged 18-24 who are not in the military. Half of those surveyed were in college full time and half were not. Demographics matched the population as a whole.

Among the findings:

  • Half of the college students and 40 percent of the non-college students could name their respective members of Congress. Nearly two-thirds of college students and more than half of the non-college students could name at least one of their two U.S. senators. In contrast, only about 15 percent of the young people knew the name of the most recent winner of "American Idol" and about 10 percent knew the winner of  "Dancing with the Stars."
  • Approximately 79 percent of college students and more than 73 percent of non-college students said they had voted in the November 2006 elections, but only 10 to 12 percent of respondents reported ever voting in "American Idol" and significantly fewer had voted in "Dancing with the Stars."
  • At least some of students' Web activity is political. On average, college students belonged to almost four Facebook advocacy groups. According to the Tufts study, Facebook tends to be used more for advocacy of Democratic political candidates and liberal or Democratic causes than for Republican candidates or conservative or Republican causes.
  • More than 61 percent of college students had participated in online political discussions or visited a politically oriented Web site.
  • Of college students, 58.6 percent reported being somewhat, moderately or very involved in their communities, compared with 36.7 percent for non-students of the same age. More than 47 percent of college students reported involvement with community service organizations compared with slightly more than 24 percent of non-students.

To be sure, surveys abound about the ignorance of college students on key facts of American history and civic life, and the Tufts survey wasn't trying to find out if students stay up at night arguing over the most significant of the Federalist Papers.

But Tufts researchers were encouraged by the findings. "Young people seem to know more about politics than they know about popular culture," said Kent E. Portney, project director and professor of political science, in a statement. "This level of political knowledge stands in stark contrast to the image of young people as uninterested in and ignorant about politics and government."

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