In an annual report on incoming college freshman, the Higher Education Research Institute revealed this week that political interest among students has hit an all-time low.
The report was based on HERI”s survey of incoming students at 434 American colleges and universities and indicated that only 28.1 percent of students polled were inclined to keep up with political affairs. This number is down from 28.6 percent in 1999 and represents a continued trend of declining political interest.
“Although the 2000 results reflect a long-term decline in students” political interest, this year is significant since freshman interest in politics traditionally increases during an election year,” said Linda Sax, the director of the study.
Gregory Markus, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan”s Center for Political Studies, noted that the survey results were largely dependent upon what students considered “political.”
“The expressed interest is at a record low but at the same time community service and volunteerism is at or near a record high,” Markus said. “It”s not that students don”t care, it”s that they”ve made a choice to act on that interest in the particular realm of community service.”
Shari Katz, who chairs the Michigan Student Assembly”s Voice Your Vote Commission, also stressed the negative connotation of “political” activity.
“When you bring in the word “politics,” (students) often get turned off because of the stigma. I think often they”re not interested in politics because they”re not making the practical connection between politics and their everyday lives,” Katz said.
Many students also point to the relative stability of American government in recent years as a reason for declining interest.
“We have nothing to unite us,” said LSA junior Kara Guminski. “I don”t think people feel that there”s anything out there that”s really pressing that they can put their time and energy into.”
LSA junior Sarah Telfer expressed a similar opinion, saying that she doesn”t consider herself politically interested.
“If there was something I really felt strongly on, I”d go after it,” Telfer added.
Markus acknowledged the contribution of perceived political stability to declining political interest but noted that many pressing issues have not drawn public attention.
“I think the perception of a lack of big issues has been part of it. The economy has been great, but for the typical working class family, it was only last year that they saw any benefit from this 10-year economic boom at all,” Markus said.
The HERI study also recorded all-time lows in the percentage of incoming students who “discuss politics frequently” as well as those voting in student government elections.