disparities in college opportunities

Today, CIRCLE releases a major report based on 47 focus groups, with a total of 386 student participants, conducted on 12 four-year college and university campuses. The report contains many interesting findings and documents a hunger for open-ended, civil conversations.

Although this is not our main finding, I am personally struck by the tremendous disparities among colleges. The “Millennial Generation” or “Generation Y”–those are abstractions. Individuals of the same age differ dramatically from one another depending on the institutions they attend.

Predominantly White students at a northeastern urban public university have extremely negative views of politics and government, seen as manipulative and controlling. They see both the college and the government as wasteful of their money and unresponsive. To the extent that they can list political acts that they have taken, these acts have often proved discouraging (even frightening, in one case). They believe that if you get involved in politics, you will pay a very heavy price. At first, they cannot think of any policies that affect them, but then they say that they are victims of the government, as welfare recipients and as immigrants. They believe that government would have a better reputation if it helped anyone effectively. Their volunteer activities appear episodic and not very educational, although one person was involved in local politics. Their efficacy is low.

In a historically black private college in the South, the students have deep distrust for the institution, the media, and the national government. They refer to powerful people in the government and the college as an undifferentiated “they” that wastes their money and treats them unfairly. The students use words like “evil” in relation to the government and fear surveillance and manipulation. They mention few political acts that they have taken. One man says that politics is a game that’s already been decided: “So it’s like why play the game[?]” Some take positions that might be identified with the right, such as a belief in self-help and a strong opposition to welfare and foreign aid. (These are pervasive themes.) Several believe that the curriculum is too focused on slavery and Black history in general.

They can mention very few opportunities for civic learning in high school or college and are pessimistic about all approaches to social change except (perhaps) organizing on the model of the Civil Rights Movement. However, they like the discussion in the focus group itself, seeing it as “political” (in a good sense). “And it’s not necessarily the gift card or the food that got me here. I just wanted to come and express my opinions so somebody else will know.”

In contrast, students at two highly selective private institutions have learned a lot about politics in college–not only from classes, but also from political speakers, events, the campus newspaper, lengthy, organized travel, and fairly intense informal discussions, including political conversations with faculty. These students are aware of their own privilege. Their complaints about the government and politics are analytical rather than passionate. They criticize the government for mistreating other people, not themselves. One Ivy student says that she wanted to be “in politics” (as a career) since high school; most are already “in politics” (as an activity) in college. One says that politics is “fun.”

They are quite sophisticated; for example, one or two students in each of the three groups recognizes a candidate (Senator Snowe) among the photos they are supposed to use as prompts for conversation. They have had civic and political opportunities from early on–an Ivy student whose father is a prominent elected official is only an extreme example. They almost all provide direct voluntary service, but often their work has a direct policy link as well. For example, one student has lobbied in Congress. Several have conducted elaborate research projects on social issues. Most of the students from both schools are liberals and equate the words “liberal,” “activist,” and “political”–basically seen as positive adjectives. The lone conservative student in the one of the groups complains about liberal bias but says he has moved toward the center in college.

In short, these undergraduates seem to have chosen campuses that are activist and predominantly liberal and have then received deliberate civic opportunities that have cemented their political identities.