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 Deeply Worried About the Country’s Direction Despite Positive Views of the Economy

In its 2019 nationwide survey of college students, the Panetta Institute for Public Policy has found a striking contrast between students’ generally positive impression of the United States economy and their very negative view of the country’s direction overall.

By the widest margin since the survey began asking the question in 2004, students describe the country as being “off on the wrong track” (64 percent) instead of moving in “the right direction” (36 percent), even though a record 59 percent of them rate the state of the economy as excellent or good and 71 percent express confidence that they’ll be able to find an acceptable job upon graduation.

“Clearly, when students think about the condition of the country, they’re looking beyond just national prosperity and their own economic prospects,” notes Institute chairman and former United States Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta. “Their concerns go deeper, to the health of our democracy and the quality of our leaders.”


“I found your survey to be both enlightening and encouraging.”

–James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence Agency (2010-2017)


Indeed, the wide-ranging survey shows that student satisfaction with “the quality of the country’s political leadership” has dropped from 48 percent in the spring of 2016 to 34 percent today, and a majority of students (56 percent) see the high-performing economy as operating unfairly.

Also, when asked about the country’s future, only 31 percent of students describe themselves as “more confident and secure,” with 69 percent saying they’re “more uncertain and concerned” – the most pessimistic view recorded by the survey in more than two decades.

The Panetta Institute commissions this poll in the spring of each year to help guide its curriculum and advance its mission, which is to encourage young people to consider careers in public service and 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, level of political involvement, personal career expectations and a variety of national and international issues.

One of the more remarkable trends over the survey’s history has been the rise in student concern about climate change. When presented with a list of ten major issues facing the country, college students now pick “addressing climate change” as their number one priority.

“Here again we get an indication why students express such dismay with our national leaders,” says Secretary Panetta. “When the current administration dismisses their number one issue as not an issue at all, it’s not so surprising that they see the nation as headed in the wrong direction.”

Presidential Race

As in previous years’ surveys, the April 26 to May 2 poll shows President Trump to be deeply unpopular on campus. Seventy percent of students disapprove of his performance in office, and even among the minority of students who identify themselves as Republicans, only 55 percent say they’d prefer him next year as their party’s nominee over someone who “reflects more traditional Republican party values and policy positions.”

Overall, students show a high level of interest in next year’s elections. Sixty-six percent of students see politics as very or fairly relevant in their lives – a figure topped only by the 69 percent recorded in the presidential election year of 2016 – and a record 87 percent of students say they’re registered to vote.

Looking at the 2020 choice for president, by a two to one margin (66 percent to 34 percent) students say it’s more important to look for “a person who will bring greater changes to current policies” than to have someone who’s “more experience and tested.” And there’s a similar preference (65 percent to 35 percent) for a president who proposes “larger scale policies that cost more and might be harder to pass into law” rather than less ambitious and less costly proposals that would be easier to pass.

Among all students, in a hypothetical 2020 general election match-up, a generic “moderate Democratic candidate” fairs somewhat better against President Trump (70 to 19 percent) than a “progressive Democratic candidate” (66 to 22 percent).

On the other hand, among Democratic students, 61 percent say they’d prefer a party nominee who reflects their own views versus 39 percent who’d prefer one with the best chance of defeating Trump.

Financial Distress

Last year’s Panetta survey showed many college students to be experiencing serious personal financial distress, and this year’s suggests that the problem may be getting worse. More than one-quarter of students (26 percent) say they’ve had to take time off from school because they couldn’t afford the tuition – up from 20 percent in 2018.

Meanwhile, nearly three out five students (59 percent) have had to take out student loans, and the average amount of debt these students expect to be carrying upon graduation approaches $40,000.

“This kind of burden not only impacts bank accounts and the ability to make a future purchase like a home,” says Institute co-chair and CEO Sylvia M. Panetta. “It also puts serious constraints on students’ career choices after graduation.”

Nearly two-thirds of students with loans (64 percent) say their debt will have a great deal or quite a bit of impact on what kind of job they eventually pursue.

Not surprisingly, students express keen interest in policy changes that would make a college education more affordable. The second most popular proposal tested in this survey, after legislation to combat climate change, is one that would make tuition free at four-year colleges for families earning up to $125,000 and make community colleges free for all, even if it means requiring most Americans to pay more in taxes or cutting federal spending on other programs. Seventy percent of students would support such a plan.

 Likewise, interest runs high on campus in a hypothetical program that would provide students with a grant or other financial assistance in exchange for two years of national service upon graduation. Sixty-three percent of students now express interest in such an opportunity, matching the poll’s all-time high in 2015.

Public Service

Because of the Panetta Institute’s mission to promote civic involvement, its surveys always ask students about their level of interest in public service. This year’s study finds a record-breaking 35 percent of students saying they’d be interested in running for a federal elected office such as member of Congress or senator if the opportunity should arise, with a record-tying 38 percent expressing interest in running for a state or local office.

“This is a finding that boosts our spirits at the Institute,” says Mrs. Panetta, “and we’re also encouraged by students’ continuing high level of involvement in their communities.”

Sixty-nine percent of students say they’ve been involved in activities to help their local community, and 52 percent – by far the highest figure in the survey’s history – say they’d be interested in working for a not-for-profit community organization or foundation after they graduate.

Russia Investigation

Looking at a particularly timely issue for the nation’s governance, nearly half of college students (48 percent) believe Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential elections “calls into question America’s ability to have free and fair elections” while 24 percent disagree with this assessment and 28 percent express no opinion.

Forty percent of students say special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent report on Russia’s interference and related matters “proves that Donald Trump did something wrong,” 27 percent say the report does not prove this, and 33 percent say they’re unsure.

Nevertheless, a majority (53 percent) say there’s “enough evidence for Congress to begin impeachment hearings now” against the President, and 43 percent believe “Congress should continue investigating to see whether there is enough evidence to hold impeachment hearings in the future.”

Other highlights of the survey include:

  • Few students express surprise that a number of wealthy and powerful parents have been charged with bribing elite colleges to gain admission for their children, with 78 percent saying they believe “this sort of thing happens all the time.”
  • Asked where they get most of their information about politics and civic affairs, students rank social media such as Twitter and Facebook as number one for the first time in the survey’s history, with 46 percent citing them as principal sources.
  • Television, meanwhile, has declined as a principal news and information source for students, from 61 percent in 2004 to 34 percent today, and the community or city newspaper has declined from 26 percent to 6 percent during that period.
  • Students are almost evenly divided on whether users of the Internet should expect that everything they say and do online is “available to everyone” (52 percent) or should expect that there are “limits to what can be shared so your privacy is protected” (48 percent).
  • Asked to pick which qualities they seek most in a presidential candidate, students cite intelligence as most important, followed closely by “values racial and ethnic diversity” and “understands the concerns and values of young people.”
  • Among Democratic students, more than a third (37 percent) say it’s important to them to have a presidential candidate who is female, and the same percentage say it’s important to have a person of color.
  • Yet when students rate their feelings toward a series of public figures, Senator Bernie Sanders comes in highest among the Democratic presidential contenders at 59 percent positive versus 22 negative and former vice president Joe Biden ranks second at 49 positive/29 negative, while Senator Kamela Harris’s personal rating is a distant third at 24/16.
  • Congressional leaders rank poorly on the feelings scale, with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell faring worst with a net negative of 13 percentage points (17 percent positive to 30 negative).
  • College students oppose repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) by a margin of 63 to 37 percent.
  • Of all the public policy proposals tested in the poll, the least popular is “building a wall along the Southern border with Mexico to address immigration,” which is supported by only 32 percent of students and opposed by 68 percent.
  • By a margin of 70 to 30 percent, students say immigration helps the United States more than it hurts.

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

For this year’s poll, Hart Research conducted online interviews with 806 students at four-year colleges across the country from April 26 to May 2.

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

Past Surveys

Panetta Institute Survey Finds College Students Financially Stressed, Worried About Their Country and Focused on Mid-Term Election  (4/19/18)
In its 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. more>>

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
 
(5/8/10)

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>>