In the U.S., colleges have long been considered havens for liberal political and social views, to the point where those with more conservative viewpoints feel unwelcome or threatened.

However, our recent study demonstrates that students from both sides of the aisle have concerns about expressing their views on political and social issues in the classroom.

In August, Intelligent.com surveyed 500 conservative, 500 liberal, and 500 moderate students. This study found that even students whose political views skew more to the center or left of the ideological spectrum are refraining from expressing opinions on political and social issues out of concern for facing consequences from loss of respect and ridicule to jeopardized grades.

Key findings:

  • 52% of all college students say they “always” or “often” refrain from expressing views on political and social issues in classrooms out of concern for potential consequences
  • Conservative students are slightly more likely than moderate or liberal students to say they refrain “always” or “often”
  • Losing the respect of their classmates and professors, being ridiculed or confronted, and jeopardizing their grades are the consequences students fear most
  • Conservative students are slightly more likely than moderate or liberal students to be willing to hear a lecture from a guest speaker, or take a class with a professor who has differing viewpoints

52% of college students concerned about sharing views on social, political issues in classrooms

Overall, 52% of U.S. college students fear giving their opinion on social and political issues in class. When looking at different political ideologies, conservative students were only slightly more likely to refrain from sharing their views.

Fifty-five percent of conservative students, 52% of moderate students, and 49% of liberal students say they “always” or “often” refrain from speaking up about political or social issues in the classroom out of concern for potential consequences.

To James M. Patterson, an Associate Professor of Politics at Ava Maria University in Florida, these findings are not altogether shocking.

“While I teach at a relatively conservative, Catholic institution, I have also taught at institutions that have a left-of-center culture,” says Patterson. At both types of institutions, Patterson says, “I find that many students simply have no idea how to disagree constructively, or even if constructive disagreement is possible. Students seem to believe that disagreement is taking sides. Hence, they can only imagine that the potential consequences will be, at minimum, to alienate some of their fellow students. At worst, they might end up fodder for some kind of social media-driven ostracization. It is vital to show students that there are alternatives, namely greater understanding of the issue and respect for differing opinions on how to resolve it.”

Fear of losing respect from professors and classmates keep students silent

And what exactly are those potential consequences that students fear? According to our survey, they vary slightly depending on students’ political leanings.

For liberal students, the top three concerns are losing their classmates’ respect (37%), being ridiculed or confronted (37%), and putting their physical safety at risk (35%).

Conservative students, meanwhile, are less concerned with their physical well-being, and more about standing with peers and professors. The top three fears among this group are losing their professors’ respect (40%), losing their classmates’ respect (40%), and jeopardizing their grade (39%).

As with their politics, moderate students’ concerns are a blend of those of their more liberal and more conservative peers. The top 3 concerns among this group are losing their classmates’ respect (37%), being ridiculed or confronted (37%), and jeopardizing their grade (35%).

According to John J. Lupinacci, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies & Social Thought in Education at Washington State University, it’s the professor’s responsibility to set the right tone in the classroom to make students of all political leanings feel comfortable speaking up.

“I think the more educators allow for spaces that welcome a diversity of perspectives and then provide tools for how to consider and value multiple perspectives as part of our education, the more our students will more openly share their questions, ideas, and beliefs,” Lupinacci says.

He goes on to note that perceptions of a professors’ beliefs, along with the power dynamic of the teacher-student relationship, can make students apprehensive from sharing their opinions. Adding, “I think it’s also peer driven, especially in smaller social groups where it might be truly punishing or dangerous for a student to differ from the group. It wouldn’t surprise me if cancel culture has become a real threat to students having space to learn by making mistakes or talking through diverse assumptions and beliefs they hold.”

Men are more concerned than women about speaking up in classrooms

Across the political spectrum, men are more likely than women to say they “always” or “often” refrain from voicing their political and social views for fear of potential consequences.

Conservative men are the most likely to remain silent; 58% of men who identify as conservative refrain from speaking openly on a regular basis, compared to 54% of both liberal and moderate men.

By comparison, 51% of conservative women, 49% of moderate women, and 45% of liberal women say they refrain from speaking “always” or “often” for fear of facing negative consequences.

Men fear loss of respect, while women want to avoid ridicule

When asked to share why they are concerned, the primary fears among conservative and moderate men revolve around a fear of rejection. Forty-six percent of conservative men worry about losing their professor’s respect, while 41% of moderate men don’t want to risk losing their classmates’ respect.

For liberal and moderate women, the top concern is facing ridicule or being confronted.

Interestingly, liberal men and conservative women have the same number one concern–putting their physical safety at risk, with 42% of liberal men, and 35% of conservative women selecting this response.

Ariana Ares, a current student at Kingston University in Los Angeles, CA, understands her peers’ concerns about political debates becoming threatening.

“You never know how someone will take something you say,” Ares says. “When you’re speaking out against their beliefs, they may take it personally, to a point where they may become violent in or out of the classroom.”

Regional political attitudes influence students’ level of concern

To see how U.S. geography influences students’ habits and concerns, we looked at students’ behavior in regions where the dominant political ideology might differ from their own–for example, conservative students in the more liberal Northeast, or progressive students in the deep, red heart of the Midwest.

Indeed, our survey found that 53% of liberal students at colleges in the South, and 51% of liberal students in the Midwest refrain from expressing their opinions “always” or “often,” out of concern for potential consequences. The same can be said for 56% of moderate students in the South, and 52% of moderate students at Midwestern colleges.

However, even conservative students are staying mum in classrooms at institutions in the Midwest. Sixty percent of right-leaning students say they frequently silence themselves in this region, as do 55% of conservative students in the Northeast.

Top concerns vary by region

The particular region a college is in, coupled with a student’s political ideology, also appears to influence what they are concerned about. Below, we highlight the top concern for each group, by region.

In the Northeast, 42% of liberal students, and 40% of conservative students are worried about losing their classmates’ respect, while 45% of moderate students are afraid that voicing an opinion on a political or social issue will jeopardize their grade.

Similarly, in the Midwest, the top concern among liberal students is losing their classmates’ respect (36%). The plurality of moderates, 40%, also say this concerns them. For conservative students at Midwestern colleges, 43% fear losing their professors’ respect if they express their political and social beliefs in class.

In the South, being ridiculed or confronted is liberals’ biggest fear (37%). Forty-two percent of conservatives worry that their grades will be affected, while 38% of moderates say they are concerned about losing their classmates’ respect.

Finally, in the West, 42% of liberals fear being ridiculed or confronted if they express political or social views, as for 35% of conservatives, and 42% of moderates. Thirty-five percent of conservatives also worry about risking their physical safety in this region.

“Nearly all students are very astute at ‘reading the room.’ That way, they can size up whether they are in a majority position or not,” says Patterson.

“At progressive institutions, conservatives are on guard. At conservative ones, progressives are on guard. Moderates usually have lower intensity and are, subsequently, less likely to participate. Hence, the prevailing view is the only one discussed.”

Conservative students more open to hearing opposing views from professors, campus guest speakers

If students have concerns about speaking their minds in classrooms, how open are they to hearing opposing viewpoints from their instructors and campus speakers?

Our survey found that conservative students are somewhat more willing than their liberal and moderate peers.

Sixty-eight percent of conservative students say they would “definitely” or “probably” take a class taught by a professor who has different political or social beliefs, compared to 59% of both moderates and liberals.

When asked if they would attend an on-campus event with a guest who had different opinions on politics or social issues, 64% of conservative students “definitely” or “probably” would attend, as would 60% of liberal students, and 58% of moderate students.

Self-censorship also occurring in social settings and on social media

We also asked students if they are refraining from expressing opinions in other settings, like social situations or on social media.

In online spaces, 58% of conservative students, 53% of moderate students, and 51% of liberals “always” or “often” refrain from expressing opinions on political or social issues, out of concern for potential consequences.

Students are more likely to speak openly when socializing with peers in person, although 51% of conservative students, 50% of liberals, and 46% of moderates say they “always” or “often” refrain from speaking up.

As will voicing their opinions in classrooms, in social situations, men are more likely to refrain from speaking all or most of the time, regardless of political ideology.

Liberal men are most likely to stay silent, with 60% saying they “always” or “often” refrain from expressing an opinion. Fifty-five percent of conservative men, and 49% of moderate men engage in the same self-censorship.

Meanwhile, among women in social settings, 48% of conservative women, 44% of moderate women, and 41% of liberal women will frequently refrain from expressing their political and social beliefs, out of fear of potential consequences.

Methodology

All data found within this report derives from three surveys commissioned by Intelligent.com and conducted online by survey platform Pollfish. We surveyed 500 conservative students, 500 liberal students, and 500 moderate students. To qualify for the appropriate survey, each respondent had to identify as the targeted political ideology for that survey, as well as confirm that they are currently a college student. Appropriate respondents were found via screening questions. This survey was conducted on August 12, 2021. All respondents were asked to answer all questions truthfully and to the best of their abilities. For full survey data, please email Content Marketing Manager Julia Morrissey at [email protected]