A Resource for Scholars

The Panetta Institute commissions a nationwide survey of college students annually to gauge their level of interest in politics and civic involvement. The results are made available to scholars and the public, and the survey also helps guide and inform the Institute’s own course offerings and leadership training programs.

Panetta Institute Survey Finds College Students Financially Stressed, Worried About Their Country and Focused on Mid-Term Election 

The 2018 survey of United States college students conducted for The Panetta Institute for Public Policy  found interest in the year’s mid-term elections running unusually high on campus, as students expressed record levels of dismay about the direction of the country and anxiety about their personal finances.

Students were nearly twice as likely to be following the mid-term elections “closely” as they were at this time in 2014 – 48 percent now versus 25 percent four years ago – and 61 percent said they’re paying at least some attention, compared to 38 percent last time.

“These levels of interest are more typical of what we see in presidential election years, when voter turnout goes up,” notes Institute Chairman Leon E. Panetta. “Clearly recent events have been driving students to pay closer attention to public policy and the actions of political leaders.”

The proportion of students who say the country is “off on the wrong track” stands at 61 percent in this study, the same as in April of last year when the figure hit its highest level in the survey’s 20-year history, while the percentage who worry about having too much student loan debt has also reached a record level – 65 percent.

In addition, students express concern for their physical safety, with gun violence ranking highest among their issue concerns and with 43 percent worrying “a great deal” or “quite a bit” about the possibility of a mass shooting occurring on their campus.

The nationwide poll of students enrolled at four-year colleges and universities was conducted from April 12 to 19, 2018, about two months after the mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school that led to demonstrations across the country in support of stronger gun regulation.

The Panetta Institute commissions the survey in the spring of each year to guide its curriculum and advance its mission, which is to encourage young people to consider careers in public service and help prepare them for the challenges they’ll face as future leaders. Conducted by Hart Research Associates, the study explores student attitudes and opinions on many topics, including social trends, preferred news sources, level of civic engagement, personal career expectations and a variety of national and international issues.

This survey added a set of questions to measure the degree of students’ financial distress, with striking results.

More than one-third of students – 37 percent – say they’ve had to skip meals because they couldn’t afford to eat, and 23 percent have eaten no food for at least a day because they couldn’t afford it.

  • Thirty-six percent have avoided a necessary medical or dental procedure because they couldn’t afford it.
  • Thirty-four percent of students work at least 20 hours a week to cover college expenses.
  • Twenty percent have needed to take time off from school because they couldn’t keep up financially.

“These numbers are dramatic evidence of how college costs have been ratcheting up in recent years and pricing many young people out of the market,” says Institute Co-Chair and CEO Sylvia Panetta. She notes that students’ record level of worry about their indebtedness is up nine percentage points since last year’s survey and 72 percent of students say they worry often about finding a good-paying, quality job upon graduation – another record high.

While well over a third of college students say they’d be interested in running someday for federal, state or local public office if the opportunity arises, student confidence in public institutions is remarkably low. Presented with a list of major institutions, students express more confidence in Amazon (61 percent) than in the United States military (57 percent), and other governmental units score far lower.

Only 33 percent of students express a great deal or quite a bit of confidence in the court system, 24 percent in the federal government, 22 percent in the Congress and 20 percent in the presidency.

Interestingly, Facebook, which has been criticized recently for its handling of its members’ personal information, also ranks at the bottom of the list, with only 20 percent of students expressing confidence in the company.

As in previous years, this poll asked students an open-ended question about what message they’d like to send to the country’s leaders. About a decade ago, in 2009, student responses were focused primarily on issues – in particular, education, jobs and the economy – but today the focus is much more on the personal, including very negative reactions to President Donald Trump and warnings to the country’s leaders to look after the interests of the people they represent.

The president’s job approval rating among students stands at a dismal 29 percent, with 71 percent disapproving of his performance, and a majority (52 percent) say their vote in this year’s congressional elections will be intended as a signal of opposition to Trump. Sixty-five percent say Trump has made things worse for America’s reputation in the world and 69 percent say he’s damaged the honor and dignity of the presidency.

In a further indicator of the quality of life on campus, female students are two times as likely as males to say they’ve experienced gender discrimination (60 percent to 30 percent), and nearly two-thirds of women (63 percent) believe the opinions of men are treated more seriously than those of women, while just 41 percent of male students believe this to be the case.

Among all students, 62 percent say they’re very or fairly closely following the MeToo Movement, with nearly seven out of ten (68 percent) saying the movement is an appropriate response to incidents of sexual harassment and 71 percent believing it will lead to long-term change on the issue.

As in the past, students were asked “How interested would you be in a program that provides you with a grant or financial assistance to help pay for your college tuition in exchange for two years of national service after you graduate, such as teaching, serving in the military, or another form of national service?”

Fifty-eight percent of students today say they’d be very or fairly interested in such a program – roughly even with the survey’s findings in the previous two years.

At the same time, when asked separately about their interest in teaching in a public school, with no mention of a financial incentive, only 30 percent of students say they’d be very or fairly interested – a big decline from the 45 percent who expressed interest 12 years ago and a possible indication of the increase in students’ financial worries.

Other highlights of the wide-ranging survey include:

  • Only 32 percent of students express satisfaction with the quality of the country’s current political leadership, yet 61 percent say politics is very or fairly relevant in their lives.
  • Although college students are far more Democratic in their leanings than United States adults overall, only 51 percent approve of the job that Democrats are doing in Congress, with 49 percent disapproving.
  • Students give President Trump his best rating on the subject of the economy, dividing about evenly on whether he has made things better (29 percent) or worse (30 percent).
  • The survey shows students more inclined to say the problems their generation will face are national in scope (59 percent) rather than international (41 percent) – a significant shift from last year, when opinion was about evenly split on this question.
  • Asked whether the United States should become more involved or less involved in a series of international issue areas, students pick “working with NATO and our allies” as their overwhelming first choice for more involvement – by a margin of 32 percentage points over less involvement – and they want less involvement in “challenging China on its trade policies” by a net 18 points.
  • About half of students (49 percent) agree that Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election calls into question America’s ability to hold free and fair elections, while 23 percent disagree and 28 percent offer no opinion.
  • By a margin of 66 percent to 34 percent, students believe immigration helps the United States more than it hurts, and 69 percent say Congress should vote to continue the DACA program, which allows young adults who were brought to this country illegally by their parents when they were children to stay here legally to attend college or work.
  • Students’ assessment of the United States economy has risen slightly since April of last year, with 58 percent now calling it excellent or good, compared with 55 percent a year ago, yet only 40 percent expect to do better financially than their parents.
  • One-third of students (33 percent) say they worry very or fairly often about losing a job to a robot, a computer or artificial intelligence – up from 26 percent last year.
  • The percentage of students who say they’d be interested in a job with a not-for-profit community organization or foundation after graduation has slowly climbed since 2005, hitting 45 percent in this survey, while interest in “working for government,” now at 42 percent, has moved up and down only slightly over that period.
  • The proportion of students expressing interest in serving in the military has doubled during that time, from 10 percent in 2005 to 20 percent in this survey.
  • Seventy-seven percent of students say they’ve taken classes in high school or college that educated them on our system of government and their role as citizens, and 64 percent claim to know a great deal or quite a bit about our democracy and their civic responsibilities.
  • Social media such as Twitter and Facebook rank highest among students as their source of news and information (41 percent), followed closely by internet news websites (40 percent) and television (39 percent). The community or city newspaper, which was cited by 26 percent in 2004, is selected by only 5 percent today, its lowest level in the history of the survey.
  • Yet when students are asked which information sources they trust the most, their community or city newspaper is their top news media choice, with 45 percent saying they trust it all or most of the time.

With two decades of collected data, the Panetta survey has become a valued source of information for scholars and journalists interested in tracking the views of the country’s next generation of voters and decision makers.

For the 2018 study, Hart Research conducted online interviews with 801 students at four-year colleges across the country from April 12 to 19.

A more extensive summary of the survey’s findings is attached, and also can be found at PanettaInstitute.org.

Click here to read the full report on the survey’s findings.

Past Surveys

Panetta Institute Survey Finds College Students Deeply Dissatisfied with Political Leaders, Yet More Politically Attentive (5/9/17)
In its 2017 nationwide survey of college students, The Panetta Institute for Public Policy found a dramatic decline in satisfaction with America’s political leaders, and yet a significant increase in students’ belief that political decisions are relevant to their lives. more>>

Panetta Institute Survey Finds College Students Pessimistic About the Country’s Future and Their Ability to Achieve the American Dream (4/28/16)

There was a significant decline in optimism on campus about the direction of the country, with 55 percent of students now saying America is on the wrong track, as opposed to 43 percent who felt that way a year ago, and with 73 percent saying it will be harder for people of their generation to achieve the American dream than it was for their parents’ generation. more>>

Students Supportive of National Service in Exchange for Financial Aid and More Focused on International Issues (4/23/15)

Sixty three percent of U.S. college students say they would be interested in a program of two years of national service in exchange for grants or financial assistance to help pay for college. In addition, students also express a heightened concern about challenges at the international level. more>>

Students Increasingly Disenchanted with National Leaders; Turning Inward from World Yet Interested in Elective Offices (4/19/14)

U.S. college students are turning away from international issues and entanglements and are  increasingly dissatisfied with the country’s political leadership. Yet they were more inclined than in the past to consider running for public office themselves, particularly at the state or local level. more>>

College Students Grow Increasingly Concerned About Future of Country; Despite Improved Perception of the Economy, Only 49% are “Confident” about Their Personal Future (4/3/12)

Only 24 percent of U.S. college students feel “confident and secure” about America’s future, a further drop from the gloomy 32 percent recorded a year earlier, and students said they are deeply dissatisfied with the country’s overall political leadership. The students expressed serious concerns about the economy and called for more bipartisan cooperation in Congress. more>>

College Students are Pessimistic about Nation’s Direction, Want Action on the Deficit and Compromise to Solve Problems (5/7/11)

U.S. college students have turned dramatically more negative in their views of where the country is headed. The students expressed serious concerns about the economy and called for more bipartisan cooperation in Congress. more>>

Panetta Institute Survey Finds Nation’s College Students Focused on Economic Worries,
Yet More Optimistic Than Two Years Ago

U.S. college students are worried about their job prospects in a still-shaky economy and a majority say they feel “uncertain and concerned” about the country’s future. The student confidence level in finding an acceptable job after graduation was at its lowest level in the ten-year history of the survey. Yet students were much less pessimistic about the country’s direction than they were two years ago, before the start of the financial crisis, and more confident than today’s adults overall. more>>

College Students Much More Optimistic Than Last Year Despite Economic Downturn (5/8/09)

Although U.S. college students know they face challenges in the deeply troubled economy, they are far happier with the direction of the country and with its political leaders than they were a year ago. Overall a majority of students felt the country was heading in the right direction. Students were hopeful that President Obama would be able to bring real change and 73 percent said they are satisfied with the country’s political leadership overall, the highest in the survey’s history. more>>

College Students Deeply Worried About the Economy and Jobs, Eager for New Leadership (5/1/08)
Opposition to the war in Iraq remains strong on U.S. campuses, and American college students are even more worried about the state of the economy. College students were eager for a change in national leadership and expressed deep disappointment with the nation’s political leadership. Despite declining confidence in the country’s general direction, student interest in the national political scene was on the rise and substantial numbers of students included careers with a public service focus among their preferred career choices. more>>

U.S. College Students See Nation on Wrong Track, Support Iraq Withdrawal (5/5/07)
A growing percentage of U.S. college students believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and an overwhelming majority support a specific timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. Students also express deep dissatisfaction with the quality of the country’s political leadership and nearly half said they would favor the creation of a new independent political party. more>>

College Students Believe Country Headed in Wrong Direction; Growing Majority Uninterested in Careers in Government (6/17/06)
The nation’s college students are unhappy with the current path of the country, but they express little interest in becoming involved in government. In a poll conducted by Hart Research Associates for the Panetta Institute, 53% of students said the country was headed in the wrong direction, a jump of 15 points from a similar survey conducted in 2005. 71% said they were not interested in careers in public service. more>>

College Survey Finds Growing Majority Uncertain and Concerned About Country’s Future (6/12/05)
College students express a growing anxiety about the future. The Hart Research Associates poll found that 55% of college students were uncertain and concerned about the country’s future, an increase of five percentage points from the previous year’s findings. Students were increasingly concerned about the country’s moral and ethical values and had become focused on national, rather than international, issues. more>>

Poll Shows Big Decline in Student Interest in Politics and Voting (6/9/04)
Both major-party presidential candidates face big challenges on U.S. college campuses. The Hart Research Associates poll found a major decline in students’ perceptions that voting really matters. The number of students who said they volunteer to help in their local communities was down also. more>>

U.S. College Students Question Long-Term Impact of September 11th (5/31/02)
By wide margins, U.S. college students in 2002 believe that positive changes in Americans’ behavior in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were mostly temporary, and that poorly performing schools were a greater threat to our country than terrorism. Yet these same students reported much greater interest in the actions of the federal government since the events of 9/11, and they were significantly more focused on international threats to U.S. security. more>>

Survey Of College Students Shows Potential for New Wave of Activism, But Little Interest in Conventional Politics (05/02/01)
Forty years ago, something began to stir on the nation’s campuses. In March 1961, President John F. Kennedy, sensing the potential idealism of the nation’s youth, signed an executive order creating the Peace Corps, and a few months later, the first cohort of Peace Corps volunteers embarked for Africa. That same year, college students traveled south to join more>>

Though Few Students Vote, Poll Shows Them Still Interested in Issues and Upbeat About the Country (4/25/00)
Although student voter turnout had been low in that year’s presidential primaries (only 17 percent of those eligible), these young people remained interested in the national policy debate and held a more optimistic view of the country’s condition than did other adults. more>>

Institute Poll Shows College Students Turned off by Politics, Turned on by Other Public Service (1/13/00)
College students have little interest in politics or political careers but nonetheless are remarkably civic-minded and public-spirited. In a study conducted for the Panetta Institute, the Mellman Group found that nearly three-fourths of college students said they had recently done volunteer work for an organization or cause they believed in. more>>