Today’s college students have been given ample opportunity to organize and engage with the political process between the administrations of President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump—however, research suggests that students are more likely to engage with nonelectoral activities tied to issues of personal interest and concern than traditional political activities, such as voting or aligning with a party.
As such, it is imperative for campuses to promote civic engagement and assure the rights of students to engage in civic-, political- and issues-minded student organizations. When students participate in the advancement of a cause they personally care about, they act and reflect. Because of this, there is a need to closely examine how students form and participate in campus organizations.
This research aims to provide the first look at how students across the United States are organizing on college campuses in an effort to participate in the political process.
There is a large amount of theoretical research on both how co-curricular experiences can better expose students to civic engagement and how students show a preference for nonelectoral activities—however, to date no studies have set out to determine how student organizations can play an important role in this regard. With this in mind, this analysis sets out to examine the following primary research questions:
What types of organizations are students creating and subsequently joining on campus?
How have student organizations and their respective memberships fluctuated over time?
What impact does overall political competitiveness in a state have on student organization memberships?
How has event attendance changed over time?
By examining these questions, this paper aims to provide the first look at how students across the United States are organizing on college campuses in an effort to participate in the political process. Campus Labs aggregated student organization data available through its database dating between the Fall 2013 and Spring 2018 semesters. In all, data was used from 397 institutions across the country, representing forty-six states. The sample of primarily four-year institutions ranges from small, career schools to private liberal arts colleges to state flagship institutions, with enrollments ranging from a few hundred students to more than fifty thousand. In total, 93,920 student organizations from this time period were examined.
Campus Labs can examine such a robust dataset due to the capabilities present in its Student Engagement platform. In particular, Campus Labs provides institutions the ability to create, register and manage student organizations, as well as assistance promoting student events through a multitude of customizable features — learn more about our platform.
By the numbers: party vs. issue-based student organizations
There were significantly more issue-based groups than party-based organizations—even as there has been a slight increase in party-based memberships since Fall 2015, which aligns with the 2016 presidential election. Overall, political and issue-based memberships have slipped slightly since Fall 2013, which potentially suggests activity crested during President Obama’s re-election campaign.
Within identified party-based groups, more than 60 percent were affiliated with Democrats—compared with slightly less than 20 percent mapping to Republicans. Specifically for third party or other ideological-based groups, those categorized as right-leaning and libertarian combined for a quarter of groups.
Trends in political and issues-based student organizations since the 2016 election
In Democratic non-swing states—as defined by those that voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election—it is not surprising to find that a majority of student memberships are in Democratic-based organizations. What is striking, however, is that there has been a steady decrease since Fall 2015. It is also important to note that there is no uptick in other liberal-minded party groups on campus, suggesting as students withdrew from party-based groups they either moved to issue-based groups or did not formally participate on campus.
Student Membership Trends in Campus Political Organizations, for Democrat States by Party Membership
In Republican non-swing states—as defined by those states won by President Trump in the 2016 election minus the six states that voted for President Obama in 2012—Democratic groups have increased in membership by more than seven percent since Fall 2014, while Republican group membership has leveled off after an eight-point drop between Fall 2013 and Spring 2015. Most notably, Democratic group membership in Republican states has increased four points since Spring 2017, while membership numbers for Republican groups have remained steady.
Student Membership Trends in Campus Political Organizations for Republican States by Party Membership
In swing states—as identified by the states that voted for President Obama in 2012, but President Trump in 2016—there is a similar drop in Republican group memberships and a correlating increase in Democratic-based organizational membership. This split seems particularly emphatic during Spring 2017 after the election of President Trump.
Student Membership Trends in Campus Political Organizations for Swing States by Party Membership
Moving from party-based organizations to issue-based organizations, the first thing of note is that enthusiasm for issue-based groups stays relatively similar, and at higher levels than party-based groups. Among measured categories (as outlined in detail in the downloadable paper) there is relative consistency between Fall 2013 and Spring 2018; but, there is a slight dip in social activism and engagement beginning in Fall 2016.
National organizations expanding reach on campuses
While analyzing groups in aggregate serves a meaningful purpose, there are a number of student organizations regularly mentioned for their activities on campuses across the country. As a result, this research sought to separately analyze Young Americans for Liberty, Turning Point USA and Public Interest Research Groups. From the data in the Campus Labs database, today there are 134 campuses with a Young Americans for Liberty group, 68 with a Turning Point USA group and 26 with Public Interest Research Groups. The number of members has changed in marked ways over the past seven years.
Student Membership Trends in Campus Political Special Interest Organizations
While the growth of these organizations demonstrates the potential for civic engagement to emerge on campuses, it also highlights the realities of political polarization. Turning Point USA, for instance, is a partisan group focused on a range of issues that can be deemed controversial. Their rallies draw large crowds of both supporters and protesters—yet, what is potentially surprising is that there is no comparative left-leaning group with a national following.
High-level research takeaways
Our research found that students overwhelmingly prefer to join organizations that are issue-based rather than those that are traditional party-based. By focusing on issues, students are able to join with like-minded individuals to pursue gains in an area of personal interest. Second, we observed fluctuations over time regarding membership for both party-based and interest-based groups. There also is an impact on whether the campus is located in a state that voted for President Trump, Hillary Clinton or swung from President Obama to President Trump in 2016. Lastly, we found a pattern of event attendance that shows peaks occurring the semester before and after a presidential election with valleys forming during the semester in which an election occurs.
While projections suggest that the youth vote will increase for the 2018 midterms, more goes into civic engagement than the singular act of voting. Whether in the classroom through intentionally designed curricular experiences or through participating in a student organization focused on civic engagement, higher education should help develop students as active, participatory citizens.