They're part of the biggest generation to come along since the baby boomers. In sheer numbers, more of them voted in the last presidential election than any group of 18- to 24-year-olds since 1972.
And if politicians want to reach this fast-growing group of voters, their best approach might be a moral one.
The majority of college students view key political issues through a moral lens, according to a poll released Tuesday by Harvard University's Institute of Politics. That lens extends far beyond the three traditional hot-button issues: abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research. It includes the federal government's response to hurricane Katrina, education policy, and the Iraq war.
"If [politicians] are going to go after this demographic, it's not just about the issues but about fairness and morality," says David King, lecturer in public policy at Harvard, who supervised the survey. "And it's not the same thing as talking about religion specifically. What I hope politicians will talk about is whether their policies are fundamentally just or unjust."
One sizable bloc of college students, which the researchers dub the religious centrists, cares deeply about the moral direction of the country, supports universal healthcare, and opposes legalizing abortion. Observers are paying special attention to this ethnically diverse group, which participates in elections. They don't fit into the standard liberal and conservative categories, and in 2004 they split nearly evenly for President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry.
"Whoever understands the religious center will do well in the 2008 general election," says John Della Volpe, the pollster who conducted the survey of 1,200 college students.
Indeed, on an individual level, religion is an important part of students' lives. Previous surveys have shown that Generation Y (those born between 1978 and 2002, according to the broadest definition) identify less with specific denominations than baby boomers did, but have a high interest in spirituality. The Harvard poll found that college students said they have become more spiritual since they started college. Collectively, the Sept. 11 terror attacks have shaped their political worldview. They are more focused on other people and many are involved in community and community service, says Mr. King.
More college students are voting, too. In 2004, more than 11 million 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots. That's still small in terms of overall share - only 9 percent of all voters. But it represents the biggest jump in voter participation of any age group since the 2000 election, census figures show. In sheer numbers, it is the highest number of votes cast by that age cohort since 1972.
"People don't fully realize what an important group this is," Mr. Della Volpe says. "They go out of their way to cast absentee ballots and are a highly motivated and highly educated group of people."
One of them is Harvard junior Krister Anderson, who serves as co-chair of the poll. Politically active, he maintains a personal profile on the website facebook.com that he has used for organizing. He describes himself as a Christian committed to social justice, environmental issues, and helping the poor. On traditional moral issues - abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research - he tends toward the liberal side of the spectrum, he says.
"I have a number of friends who are not overtly religious but have a sense of spirituality in their lives," he adds. "It shapes their worldview in terms of how they think about policy."
To reach this group of new voters, politicians need to cultivate a language of morality, some say. Mr. Anderson has ideas on how candidates can reach his generation.
"It's not about how much money it's going to cost to provide healthcare but that this country has a moral imperative to provide healthcare for people," he says. Similarly, debate on the environment should not come down to a division between business and environmental groups but should center instead on the idea that a sustainable environment is crucial for the future.
"Democrats do not need to be afraid to talk about morality, because people see it in a broader context" on issues such as healthcare and education, says Della Volpe. For Republicans, they need to extend their focus of moral issues beyond abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research, he adds. "I don't have as much advice for Republicans because they've been [talking about] morality so well."
A group of Harvard undergraduates, the Institute of Politics, and Prime Group, a bipartisan consulting firm, conducted the interviews.
Among the poll's key findings: For the third year in a row more than half of college students said they are concerned about the moral direction of the country. Fifty percent of college students say the government's response to hurricane Katrina was a question of morality. About 4 in 10 say that education policy and Iraq war policy are moral questions. Democrats outnumber Republicans 52 percent to 35 in believing healthcare is a moral issue.
Religious centrists comprise 25 percent of college students. They are likely to be a key swing group in the 2008 election, the poll found. Among groups of college students, they have the largest numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics, and they strongly support universal healthcare and free trade, and are environmentally conscious.
While 7 of 10 college students believe that religion is important in their lives, Democrats and Republicans disagree on what role it should play in politics. Among Democrats, 54 percent say the influence of religion is increasing, and by a 2-to-1 margin they believe that is a bad thing. Among Republicans, 62 percent say that religion is losing its influence, and by a 7-to-1 margin they believe that is a bad thing.
Personal profiles on the Internet are likely to become an important campaign tool as the midterm elections and 2008 presidential election draw closer. Of the 76 percent of college students who have a facebook.com account, 14 percent have used it to promote a political candidate.
In a head-to-head matchup in the 2008 election, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain each received the support of 40 percent of college students. The other 20 percent remain undecided.