Millennials, Unspun

A series of focus groups finds that today's college students are involved in civic activism but distrustful of the political system's polarization and opacity.
November 8, 2007

Pick the stereotype that rings truest about the political engagement of today's youth:

1. They're too busy sending Twitter updates and playing Nintendo Wii with their friends to bother participating in the political process.

2. Following the heroic example of Tracy Flick, they hurl themselves energetically into student government like the Organization Kids they are.

3. Donning Barack Obama campaign buttons, they idealistically and methodically rally around grassroots causes that bypass politics entirely.

Each statement paints a picture that's been used, more or less, to represent the sentiments of the current generation of students. They even have a name -- "millennials" -- and a set of core values that supposedly encompasses a greater willingness to collaborate, learn visually and share intimate details of their lives with the public.

They also care about the world they live in. According to a report released yesterday called "Millennials Talk Politics: A Study of College Student Political Engagement," the generation currently enrolled in college fits most snugly into option (3) above. They may not support Obama per se (or even a specific presidential candidate), but they do have goals and want to improve the world. The problem is that they're not sure whether the current political environment makes any of that possible.

The report, from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which studies civic engagement among young people, suggests that students are tired of partisanship and "spin," are wary of the political process in general and tend to distrust the overwhelming array of media sources that vie for their attention. The students surveyed still retain their idealism but choose to put their beliefs into action through local organizing and volunteer efforts that offer more tangible, immediate results. They stand in marked contrast to Generation X, who in a similar 1993 report (like this one, supported by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation) were portrayed as generally apathetic and unconcerned with affairs beyond their own lives.

It might not be a coincidence that today's college students look primarily to local activism: Many came from middle and high schools with requirements for community service. "Most high schools now have community service requirements and it's come to the point where they've trained you so much into it, it becomes second nature and habit to do service," one student told a focus group.

The picture painted in the report isn't scientific, although its authors said they made efforts to include as representative a cross section as possible in the 47 focus groups organized at 12 four-year colleges nationwide -- almost 400 students in all. Still, there's always the possibility that students attracted to such groups are a somewhat self-selected bunch interested in particular goals and involved deeply in campus causes.

Comparing survey results from the focus groups to the report's data from a related national telephone poll of college students, for example, reveals differences in representation for certain groups. Forty percent of focus group participants identified themselves as Democrats, compared with 25 percent polled nationally; 12 percent (versus 33 percent of students in the poll) said they were Republicans. More self-identified as liberal, fewer as moderate and twice as many said they were "very liberal" than the national sample.

At the same time, African-American students were underrepresented in the focus groups (10 percent versus the 17 percent polled by phone) and there were many more who consider themselves ethnically mixed, or in the "Other" category (11 percent in the focus groups versus 3 percent).

If the representation of students raises some questions, so does the representation of the population at large: "Are these attitudes any different from those of the general public?" asked Maureen F. Curley, the president of Campus Compact, at a panel on Wednesday announcing the report's release.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found a gap of political engagement at colleges and universities: at wealthier institutions such as Princeton University and Bowdoin College, for instance, students are exposed to more opportunities to organize rallies, pursue causes and otherwise engage in activism. Other colleges involved in the survey included Kansas State University, Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., the University of Maryland (where CIRCLE is based) and Wake Forest University.


Back to Top