Latest News

Poll: Almost half of college students say they're politically active

WASHINGTON—Nearly half of U.S. college students claim to be politically active, although they participate more via consumer choices, the Internet and politically charged fashion than by working in campaigns.

These findings emerged from a mid-October poll of 18- to 24-year-olds on nearly 250 U.S. college campuses by Harvard University's Institute of Politics, the latest in a series of such surveys since 2000, when pollsters there decided to explore why political activity was invisible on their campus during a presidential election.

All 1,204 students polled were enrolled at four-year universities at the time. The poll's margin of error was 2.8 percentage points.

Forty-eight percent of students said they are politically active. Signing e-mail petitions and forwarding them to friends, wearing political T-shirts and wristbands for social and political causes, and buying or boycotting products because of companies' reputations all fit into what many students today consider political activities, the poll found.

Harvard junior Krister Anderson, 22, a co-chair of the poll, said the numbers marked the latest shift in a long trend.

"My grandparents were joining trade unions (and) my parents were marching in the streets about Vietnam," he said. "But my generation is a little quieter, a little more individual. They're sort of taking a technological twist in their activism."

The students expressed mixed emotions about public life. While 93 percent of those surveyed said being an elected official was honorable, 70 percent said they thought that elected officials today were motivated by selfish reasons. And while 52 percent said they trusted the United Nations to do the right thing most of the time, only 39 percent said that about President Bush, whose job-approval rating was 41 percent.

Current events clearly worry them. Fifty-eight percent said the country was on the wrong track and 62 percent thought America should begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Such large concerns help explain why 74 percent of students voted in the 2004 presidential election, the highest turnout among four-year college students since 1972, according to the Harvard pollsters. On average, 18- to 24-year-olds with four-year college degrees are twice as likely to vote as their noncollege peers.

"We think the increase is due to the war in Iraq," said Caitlin Monahan, 22, a survey co-chair and Harvard senior.

The poll also found a general interest in Social Security restructuring, with 7 in 10 students worried that the program won't provide for them after retirement. Just over half favored private accounts even if they risk financial loss.

The students' ambivalence about national politics doesn't apply to involvement in their own communities. Nearly 7 in 10 have performed volunteer service in their localities and a quarter volunteer on a weekly basis. However, fewer than a third viewed such service as political activity.

Sixty-eight percent said they followed national political news closely. And while 42 percent admitted that they sometimes get their news from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," far more said they followed network TV news (79 percent) or cable TV news (75 percent) and many read major newspapers, either on the Web (43 percent) or in print (43 percent).

For more on the Harvard poll online, go to


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051116 COLLEGEPOLL

Need to map

Related stories from McClatchy DC