Why college activism is soaring

College freshmen are more inclined toward activism than ever, according to a new survey. It points to how the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements have shaped young Americans. 

Jeff Roberson/AP/File
A member of the black student protest group Concerned Student 1950 gestures while addressing a crowd at the University of Missouri on Nov. 9 following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign.

The recent success of protesters addressing issues of race on campus – from the University of Missouri to Ithaca College – may be the leading edge of a historic level of student activism.

Incoming college freshmen are more likely than ever before to say they are very likely to participate in protests while in college, an annual survey released Thursday shows.

There’s also been an uptick in other indicators of students’ civic engagement and their desire to improve racial understanding, according to “The American Freshman,” a nationally representative survey of new full-time students published by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Just as the presidential race so far has highlighted a growing desire to upend the political establishment, more students are being energized by the idea that they can take direct action to influence their own campuses and the broader society.

The higher numbers of likely protesters reflect frustration with society and college administrators, more opportunities for activism, and more positive attention given to such protests, says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Active social media conversations and media coverage also “accelerate the ways people think about protest participation as … something that you should do if you are feeling [strongly] about an issue. It’s enormously encouraging,” she says.

The number of incoming freshmen in 2015 who said they are very likely to take part in protests was 8.5 percent, up from 5.6 percent in 2014. That’s the highest percentage since the survey started in 1967, though the previous peak in 1992 was close, at 8.4 percent. The low point was 3.6 percent in 1978.

It might seem a small ratio – fewer than 1 in 10 students predicting they’ll participate in protests – but that’s always been the case because “protests take a lot of time, commitment, and in some ways more courage” than other forms of contributing to social change, Ms. Kawashima-Ginsberg says.

Black students were the most likely to say there’s a good chance they will protest, at 16 percent, up 5.5 percentage points from the year before. Latino students also saw a significant rise, with 1 in 10 now expecting to protest.

Breana Ross, who graduated from the University of California, Riverside, last year, says she started her activism around the issue of discriminatory housing. Then it was the 2014 police-shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., that “catapulted” her into direct protests such as die-ins tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. A black woman, she also advocated around the issue of campus sexual assault, helping to push the administration to approve a survivors’ bill of rights.

“I got thrown a megaphone and never let it go,” says Ms. Ross, now the vice president of the United States Student Association (USSA) in Washington, which has helped organize student activism for decades.

While today’s students may borrow tactics from protest movements of the past, they are also innovating. The various distractions of modern society, coupled with the evolution of civil rights issues, has forced them to go about things in new ways, says Walter Earl Fluker, a professor of ethical leadership at Boston University.

“Black Lives Matter in some ways is in the vanguard of a new generation of student activists who have arrived on the stage of history without a fixed script,” says Professor Fluker. “They’ve had to rewrite … fragments of scripts from the past ... [based on] their own challenges of police brutality, incarceration of black and brown people … and the disrespect that many experience on major university campuses.”

The freshman survey was conducted between March and October of 2015, before the victory of student activists at Missouri, who – with the help football players promising to boycott profitable games – toppled the president this fall.

In the following months, activists at several other campuses succeeded in bringing down leaders or getting administrators to agree to demands such as working to increase the diversity of their faculties.

Now administrators will be more pressed to engage in dialogue with student activists, and “the fact that young people gathered and collectively had such an impact on that huge machine … is so empowering,” Kawashima-Ginsberg says.

It shows the appeal that protests have for students who may want to do more than follow the traditional paths of volunteering and voting – opportunities that are largely set up by the “system,” she says. “Protest is so different.… They can see they started this on their own. They changed the game.”

Droves of students who may not be ready to jump into the front lines of a protest are also bringing values to campus that may be closely related: 40 percent say being a “community leader” is a very important or essential life objective, up more than 3 points since 2014. That’s another record high in the survey, and contrasts to just under 15 percent of students at the low point in 1971.

Other indicators up from recent years among freshmen:

  • 41 percent have a strong desire to promote racial understanding. (When broken down by race, it’s about one-third of whites, half of Latinos, and nearly two-thirds of blacks.)
  • 44 percent strongly want to influence social values.
  • 22 percent place high importance on influencing the political structure.
  • 75 percent say helping others in difficulty is a very important or essential personal objective, a record high.
  • 60 percent (another record high) have a strong interest in better understanding other cultures and countries.

Students historically have protested a wide range of issues, from wars to perennial hot buttons like public tuition hikes. Given the relative newness of the protests around racial issues on many campuses, those are receiving more attention, but many students who are drawn into activism around one issue end up staying involved around a host of other concerns, Ross says.

Perhaps not surprisingly in a presidential election cycle with open primary races for both parties, 60 percent of freshmen say they expect to vote during their college years, up from 50 percent of the previous class.

The recent Occupy movement – protesting social and economic inequality and originally centered on Wall Street – is “one of the significant variables that may very well be driving some of the student activism, for instance with the Bernie Sanders campaign,” says BU’s Fluker.

A demonstration against a proposal to freeze Pell grants college organized last year by USSA included students wearing caps and gowns and moving into the road near the Supreme Court to block traffic. Ten students were arrested, Ross says. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had not yet declared his candidacy for president, appeared at the event in support of students’ calls for free college.

“It was a historic moment on so many levels, and I really fell in love with organizing,” Ross says.

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