Study Shows That Peers, Not Professors, Cause College Students to Shift to Left


Published: November 20, 2008

According to a recent UCLA study, college students tend to shift to the ideological left concerning social issues between their freshman and junior years. Although liberal professors are often blamed for such opinion changes in regard to issues like gay marriage and abortion, the study found that the greatest factor in the trend is not faculty, but peer influence.

The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has compiled data from over 40 years of surveys, according to a recent Associated Press article on the findings. The study showed that while 52 percent of college freshmen say that they support legalized abortion, this number jumps to 60 percent by junior year. Similar results were found on the issue of gay marriage; 54 percent of freshmen said they support “legal marital status” for same-sex couples, while 66 percent of juniors said they do.

“When students go to college, they are awoken to the complexity of life,” said Clara Rodriguez, associate chair for the department of sociology and anthropology at Fordham. Rodriguez said that students learn that life is not “simply good and bad, black and white, us and them” and that this perspective is “associated with what liberals think more than [with what] conservatives and fundamentalists think.”

She noted that, unlike in high school, college students come from all over the country and the world to study together. This exposes students to cultures and backgrounds that they would never have had the chance to understand before.

“Circles within your community are most likely more homogenous, but in college your circle intersects more with people of different backgrounds who have traveled different paths,” Rodriguez said.

Matthew Weinshenker, professor of sociology at Fordham, said that, as a sociologist, the results of the study did not surprise him.

“What influences people isn’t what they hear sitting in class and listening; it is something that they directly experience in a more immediate way,” he said, referencing students’ interaction with their peers.

“Professors like to think that they are really influential, but in reality, we are not. Many conservative political commentators like to argue that liberal professors are more influential that they really are,” he said.

Stewart Guthrie, professor emeritus of anthropology at Fordham, attributed the shift to the fact that many of the conservative opinions that students enter college with are “culture-bound, that is, more rooted in the ideas and attitudes of one particular culture at one particular time.” He continued, “The process of education is partly one of learning ideas and attitudes of other peoples around the world, which lets us see that our particular views aren’t necessarily universal or graven in human nature.”

Guthrie said this fact applies directly to the issue of gay marriage; both the notion of being gay and the institution of marriage are culturally bound concepts that do not have the same implications all around the world.

“In addition, at least a few positions presently identified as conservative, such as those on environmental issues including global warming, are simply insufficiently informed,” Guthrie said. He noted that after taking courses in biology and ecology, students may gain knowledge that causes them to abandon their previous doubts about global warming.

Keith Eldredge, dean of students at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), suggested that the reason that many college professors are liberal might be found in the contrasting ideas of the role of government between the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Eldredge pointed out that Democrats traditionally believe that government has a role in helping people directly, while Republicans tend to leave that role to private institutions. He said that a connection to the notion of helping others in society might lead liberals into the field of education. Eldredge said that he agreed that most professors at Fordham are liberal, but also said that he “hasn’t seen any blatant attempted converting happening at Fordham.”

Along with the faculty, Eldredge noted that the student body at FCLC seems to be “solidly Democratic…During the election, all the conversations were about why you should vote for Obama, and during the primaries it was all ‘Who are you voting for, Obama or Hillary?’ There really wasn’t any mention of the Republicans [in my experience],” he said.

Eldredge said that the findings of the study coincide with his experiences with college students.

“Peers have a greater influence than authorities on a variety of things—from clothes to music to more important things like grades, study habits and substance use and abuse,” he said. Therefore, peer influence on political ideology is a more “subtle peer pressure” than the blatant persuasion that occurs in some of the other arenas.

Guthrie said, “As we gain knowledge, in my opinion, some of these  [conservative] positions are undermined in various ways. This may not, however, be a permanent or universal situation, just as the terms conservative and liberal are not [permanent and universal].”

Eldredge also spoke about the fact that people tend to be more liberal when they are young and shift to the right as they mature.

“The Democratic Party really taps into a sense of optimism and change,” he said “and that really resonates with college students.” He said that college is a time for students to feel that they can make a difference and impact the world. “When you get out of college you often lose that idealism because you get jaded by negative experiences,” and, according to Eldredge, adopt more conservative ideals.

Noting  the  “extreme liberal[ism]” of New York City and Fordham in particular, Ryan Murphy, FCLC ’11, said that “being a conservative is hard because it is seen as almost being a flaw in a person. The Republicans I have met on campus have discussed their beliefs as if it were illegal to have them, whispering ‘Are you a Republican too?’” Murphy said that due to the influence of his liberal friends, he had contemplated voting Democratic. Murphy said, “Although I knew that McCain matched up better with my political views, voting for Obama was the ‘cool’ thing to do.” Yet the sway of his liberal peers did not persuade him in the end; he said that he followed his own ideals and voted for McCain.

Dave de la Fuente, FCLC ’10 and president of United Student Government (USG), said that for him, “both [his] professors and [his] friends have equal ability in altering [his] outlook.” He continued, “Where I grew up in New Jersey, most people are socially, fiscally and politically conservative. Most teachers in my [high] school were also conservative, so typically there was a slant toward conservative ideals.”

Although he said that his college experience has “certainly opened [his] eyes to the variety of perspectives,” he hasn’t significantly shifted to one side or the other of the political spectrum. “I haven’t necessarily become more ‘liberal,’ but I’ve become more receptive and open-minded to ‘liberal’ arguments, which I rarely heard in high school,” de la Fuente said. “Students at Fordham are encouraged to see the big picture, which has led me to become even more politically centrist.”