A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found convincing evidence that a student’s political views are significantly influenced by those they socialize with during college. Students who were assigned a roommate with different political beliefs tended to move closer toward their roommates’ political preferences at the end of the year.
Higher education has become a heated topic among politicians. While Democrats continue to support higher education, Republicans have argued that universities are guilty of promoting a left-progressive agenda while suppressing conservative views. Although evidence suggests that people with a college education tend to endorse more liberal attitudes, there has been little evidence to suggest that college actually causes these attitudes.
Study authors Logan Strother and his colleagues aimed to explore how college students’ political views change over time, while additionally investigating whether socialization during college might be a pathway through which college influences students’ political views. The authors specifically wondered whether living with a roommate with different politics might influence a student’s views.
“The idea that college causes people to become ‘liberal’ or ‘leftist’ is pretty common today — I wanted to know if there was any truth to the claim. The question is particularly important right now, as we note in the article, because higher education has become a front in the ‘culture wars,'” explained Strother (@LoganRStrother), who is an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University.
The researchers collected data from a two-wave study that was conducted among an analytical sample of 1,641 college students from two American universities. The students all lived on campus and were assigned roommates prior to their first year of college. Room assignments were appointed by the colleges while taking certain student preferences into account (e.g., room type, campus location, smoking preferences).
The students completed an initial survey in August, before the start of their first year of college, and a second survey the following spring, after living with their roommate for nearly a year. The questionnaires included an item that asked students to select their political views from the following options: far left, liberal, middle-of-the-road, conservative, or far right.
At the start of the study, the overall sample tended to lean to the left of the political spectrum. Interestingly, as a whole, the students’ views did not move more toward the left after the first year of college. Instead, the sample made a small but significant shift toward being more conservative at the second survey.
When looking at individual students, most selected the exact same response for the ideology question on both surveys. Still, 24% gave different responses, and of those who changed their responses, 56% grew more conservative and 44% grew more liberal.
It was also found that a student’s ideology at the end of the academic year was significantly related to their roommate’s ideology at the start of the year. This effect held even while controlling for the student’s initial ideology, suggesting that a student’s political views tended to drift toward their roommates’ throughout the year.
Next, the researchers compared students who began the year with an ideologically similar roommate to those who began the year with a roommate with a different ideology. It was found that having a roommate with a different political stance had a significant effect on a student’s ideology, whether their roommate’s views leaned more to the left or to the right.
Strother and his team said their findings offer evidence against the claim that higher education tends to sway students’ political views to the left. Instead, the college students’ views seem quite stable over time, with the majority of them endorsing the same ideology at the end of their first year as they had at the start.
“We don’t find any evidence of broad leftward movement in college freshman’s political ideology. Most students’ ideology is unchanged after a year of college. Among those who do change, the net effect is one of moderation: liberal students tend to move a little to the right, conservative students a little to the left,” Strother told PsyPost.
“At the level of individual students, we find a causal effect of roommate(s)’ ideology on a given student’s ideology. That is, if a liberal student has a conservative roommate, those roommates are likely to influence each other’s ideology over the course of freshman year, such that the liberal will report being a little more conservative in the second wave of the study. We argue that this is evidence that to the extent the students’ political views change over the course of college, peer socialization is a key pathway for that change.”
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations. “First, our study only captures change during students’ first year of college, so we can’t speak to what might happen after 2 or 3 or 5 years of college. Second, the data were collected in 2009-2010, and it’s possible that things have changed somewhat since then,” Strother said.
The study, “College roommates have a modest but significant influence on each other’s political ideology“, was authored by Logan Strother, Spencer Piston, Ezra Golberstein, Sarah E. Gollust, and Daniel Eisenberg.