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 Dissatisfied with Political Leaders, Yet More Politically Attentive
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.

Satisfaction with “the quality of the country’s political leadership” has plummeted from 48 percent in the Institute’s survey in April of last year to 29 percent today, while the perceived relevance of politics to students has risen from 59 percent to 69 percent.

The president receives a job approval rating of only 28 percent among college students, compared to 75 percent for Barack Obama at this point in his presidency. And yet, by nearly two to one (44 percent to 23 percent), students say Trump’s election has made them more rather than less interested in being involved in politics.

“There’s something going on here that both major parties would be wise to follow up on,” says Institute chairman Leon E. Panetta. Based on the survey’s findings, the former U.S. secretary of defense sees college students as “potentially a major force in American politics – paying attention and waiting to be inspired and activated.”

Today’s college students take the most pessimistic view of the direction of the country in the twenty-year history of the Panetta survey. Three out of five students (61 percent) say the country is “off on the wrong track” – an increase from 55 percent in 2016.

At the same time, however, the survey shows that most students take a positive view of the nation’s economy. Fifty-five percent rate the economy as excellent or good – the highest proportion in the poll’s history – and 68 percent say they are either very or fairly confident that they will find an acceptable job upon graduation.

“So, when students assess the country’s direction, it’s clear that they’re not just looking at their own pocketbooks,” says Institute co-chair and CEO Sylvia M. Panetta. “They’re concerned about a broad range of issues, from civil liberties to immigration to the environment.”

The Panetta Institute commissions this 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 will face as future leaders. Conducted by Hart Research Associates, the study explores student attitudes and opinions on many topics, including social trends, level of civic engagement, preferred news sources, personal career expectations and a variety of national and international issues.

With two decades of collected data, the 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.

One of the more striking trends over the survey’s history has been the rise in student concern about climate change. Eighty-seven percent see global warming as a very serious or somewhat serious concern, up from 71 percent in 2010, and 70 percent of students today see the problem as a high or “very top” priority for congressional action, compared with 45 percent in 2001.

Another growing priority among students is making healthcare more affordable. Seventy-two percent, a record high, believe it was a good thing that the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (“Obamacare”) became law, and 69 percent want the program kept in place.

Reducing the burden of college student loans is also a rising concern, up from 62 percent in 2001 to 72 percent in this study.

When it comes to the sources students turn to for news about politics and civic affairs, the survey’s trend lines reflect the increasing power of the Internet. “News websites” were a top choice for only 25 percent of students in 2004 but now are cited by 50 percent, exceeding television (at 42 percent) and “social media such as Twitter and Facebook” (at 34 percent).

Curiously, when students are asked which news source they trust the most, their top choice is their community or city newspaper, with 54 percent saying they trust it “a great deal” or “quite a bit.” Yet only 7 percent say they get most of their political information from this source.

Because President Trump has made frequent use of Twitter to communicate with the public, this year’s survey asked students whether they view this practice as “good” because it allows a president to “communicate to people immediately” or “bad” because these instant messages “can have unintended major implications without careful review.”

Students, who are among the heaviest users of Twitter themselves, view the President’s habit as “bad” by a margin of 79 percent to 21 percent.

Regarding all assessments of the President’s policies and performance, it should be noted that college students are significantly more Democratic in their political leanings than American adults overall. Only 16 percent of them in this survey say they voted for Trump in the November election, with 47 percent having voted for Hillary Clinton, 6 percent for the Libertarian Gary Johnson and 3 percent for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.

Of the 28 percent who say they did not vote, 56 percent say they would have supported Clinton if they had voted and 20 percent say they would have voted for Trump. Their most frequently cited reason for not voting is “I didn’t believe in any of the candidates” (37 percent) and 13 percent say they didn’t think Trump would win.

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 survey finds a full one-third of them (33 percent) saying they would be interested in running for a federal elected office such as member of Congress or senator if the opportunity should arise – an all-time high by a slight margin – and interest in running for a state or local office comes in at 35 percent.

In addition, 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-nine percent of students said they would be very or fairly interested in such a program – roughly even with the survey’s findings in the previous two years.

As in past years, this survey sought to get a reading on how students view life on their own campuses and in higher education overall. One question was which they perceive as a more important priority – “protecting freedom of speech, even when it offends some people” or “making sure people don’t feel hurt by offensive speech.”

Overwhelmingly, by 68 percent to 32 percent, students come down on the side of free speech. Sixty-four percent see their own campus as striking the right balance in this regard, with 21 percent saying their school goes “too far” in limiting what people can say on sensitive issues and 15 percent saying their campus doesn’t go far enough to protect people from offensive speech.

Other highlights of the survey include:

  • More than half of students (56 percent) say that, over the past year, a family member or friend sent them a false news story believing it to be true.
  • Forty-eight percent say they have had a heated argument with family or friends who supported another candidate, and 33 percent have blocked or “unfriended” someone on social media because of the presidential election.
  • Forty-nine percent of students – the highest proportion in the survey’s history – think most of the problems their generation will face are international rather than national in scope.
  • By wide margins, students want the United States to stay engaged or get more involved in limiting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and “fighting ISIS.”
  • They are much less enthusiastic, however, about challenging China on its aggressive behavior in Asia and sending U.S. troops to Syria.
  • College students oppose building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stop undocumented immigrants by a factor of three to one (75 percent to 25 percent).
  • Yet they are slightly less generous than U.S. adults overall on whether deportation of undocumented immigrants should be limited to those who have committed a serious crime.
  • Concern runs high among students about Russia’s attempts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election, with 77 preferring an investigation into the matter by a non-partisan independent commission instead of by Congress.

For this year’s Panetta survey, Hart Research conducted online interviews with 802 students at four-year colleges across the country from April 27 to May 2.

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

Past Surveys

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>>