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Policies at the federal, state and institution level aimed at protecting free speech, student safety and victims of assault are favored by students more than efforts to safeguard against COVID-19 on campuses. That’s according to the latest Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan.
The late-June survey of 2,035 current students from 113 colleges and universities sought student opinion on policies that impact (or would impact) students but are developed by legislators or higher ed leaders.
Support for Free Speech
Nearly two-thirds of students -- including somewhat equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans -- support legislation that would give universities less public funding if they prohibit students from freely expressing opinions on campus.
But how sound is the idea? “It seems like funding cuts would not be an effective strategy, because they aren’t necessarily going to have the consequence that lawmakers intended,” says Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Campus Free Expression Project. Such a move is more symbolic, since institutions could absorb cuts in any budget area. From her perspective, “college leaders are very attuned to this issue, searching for ways to foster an environment of open expression on campuses” -- in part because they know “it’s important to be seen doing an excellent job of encouraging an open environment.”
Organized protests, however, can be a source of contention. Elected officials in many states are working on legislation that would make any person convicted of a criminal offense related to a protest, demonstration or rally ineligible for student loans and grants. Only 9 percent of Student Voice respondents agree strongly with this concept, and an additional 11 percent agree somewhat.
This type of legislation is “really unfortunate,” says Anna Sassaman, who is majoring in political science at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. “We’re at an age where some people want to participate in those things and don’t always think about the consequences of them.”
Although Democrats are a lot more likely than Republicans to disagree with tying financial aid eligibility to protest activity, UC Berkeley student Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza finds that puzzling. “In reality, students on all sides will have some form of protest at some point in time,” says Zaragoza, the student regent-designate on the University of California Board of Regents.
But Mark Huelsman, a policy fellow at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, says these types of laws are “almost certain to be targeting those speaking out about racial injustice.”
Just 28 percent of students surveyed feel extremely or very comfortable sharing their opinions on potentially sensitive topics on campus.
Sassaman, who recently interned in a state senator’s office, would rate herself as only slightly comfortable (a response 17 percent of those surveyed chose). “I try to stay pretty neutral on things. I don’t want to have any specific stances that may harm me in the future.”
Pfeffer Merrill says the comfort level findings are in line with other surveys. “It’s very hard in our polarized society to talk about difficult topics. And for students, it’s hard to learn to do those things. It points to the importance of universities teaching the essential civics skills of hearing and talking constructively with those whose viewpoint may be different from one’s own.”
Safety and Security Preferences
Eight in 10 respondents in the Student Voice survey say they feel very (37 percent) or somewhat (43 percent) safe on campus. When students don’t feel totally safe, higher ed institutions may have a retention issue, since such students are potentially more likely to not finish college, says Huelsman.
Students were asked what entities currently provide safety and security on campus, and what entities should be providing these services. Seven in 10 say campus police handle safety and security, and about an equal number believe that’s the right move.
About one in five students say volunteer mediators or other mental health professionals are part of their institutions’ safety and security teams, but nearly one-third would like them to be. That percentage increases to 42 percent among students who feel somewhat or very unsafe on campus. Mediators are also a particularly attractive option to students who say they follow current events very closely (27 percent of the sample).
While students surveyed did not have major differences of opinion when filtered by race, students of color are generally most invested in campus security-related decisions. One current UC system conversation is about whether it’s feasible for community colleges to have their own security forces, says Zaragoza, adding that relying on local police forces can be a bad idea in a city like Los Angeles, where police mistrust runs high among some groups.
And when campus police uniforms came up, with the idea of making them more casual so students would feel less threatened, that didn’t fly with many students. “The minute you asked students who were in harm’s way, for the most part, they immediately said, ‘No, that’s a horrible idea. What if some random people attacked me and I couldn’t defend myself?’” she says.
Another security-related topic in the survey involved federal Title IX guidance. Under current guidance, colleges can decide for themselves whether reported incidents of sexual assault that happened off campus should be investigated by the institution. Three-quarters of students agree that universities should investigate off-campus allegations, 12 percent say they should not and an additional 15 percent aren’t sure.
Sassaman, whose response would have been in line with the majority, notes that “in codes of conduct, we’re responsible for our actions on and off campus.”
Latinx students are by far the most likely racial group to agree that off-campus incidents should be investigated by colleges (84 percent, compared to between 71 percent and 74 percent of white, Black or Asian students).
Varsity athletes, meanwhile, are much less likely to think off-campus conduct should be investigated by universities. Less than half (46 percent) believe they should, compared to 67 percent of students who are not athletes. Filtered by geography, students from outside the U.S. are the least likely group to believe internal investigations are warranted (60 percent).
The survey also asked students about COVID-19 safety measures they want or don’t want in place in the fall -- with responses indicating “pretty wide support for returning to some sense of normalcy,” sums up Huelsman. “The actions that are more disruptive to an on-campus or in-person experience have less support.”
Institutional safety supports such as increased cleaning and sanitizing procedures and free COVID testing on campus were much more commonly desired than indoor physical distancing or mask wearing, for example.
Community college students (250 of the survey sample) were much more likely than those at four-year colleges and universities to want hybrid learning and believe large crowds and events should be avoided.
Zaragoza guesses that last piece could simply be because community colleges don’t have as many big events. “At Berkeley, I’m missing out on petting llamas during finals week and having big silent disco events,” she says. “We have so many more random events happening.”
In terms of understanding more broadly the student perspective so that leaders can make informed decisions, Zaragoza advocates for in-person community listening sessions. “There’s a lot of noncommunication on our campuses, even between faculty and students,” she says. “If we just created more organic spaces for administrators and faculty to talk to students, we could have campuses that better incorporate what students want. Having open spaces for students to speak is so important.”
Scroll down for full highlights from the Student Voice survey.