A Resource for Scholars

Panetta Institute Survey Finds College Students Pessimistic About the Country’s Future and Their Ability to Achieve the American Dream

The Panetta Institute periodically commissions a nationwide survey of college students 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.

In its latest nationwide survey of college students, The Panetta Institute for Public Policy has found 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.

The gloomy outlook appears to be tied to a more negative view of the United States economy, with only 44 percent of students rating it as excellent or good in the late April poll, as opposed to 52 percent who gave the economy positive marks at the same time last year.

“Young Americans are now reflecting the concern of their families about the future of the economy,” observed Institute chairman Leon E. Panetta.

The former secretary of defense was pleased, however, to see continuing high levels of student interest in careers in public service and also a strong commitment among students to freedom of speech. A clear majority of students (58 percent) would support a program that would help them pay for college in exchange for two years of national service. In addition, while students generally feel that an increasing sensitivity to speech that can hurt others is a positive change in society, 70 percent of them in this survey agree that protecting a free flow of ideas on campus, even at the risk of offending some people, is a more important priority than protecting people’s feelings.

The Panetta Institute, which commissions its annual survey in part to guide its curriculum, encourages young people to consider careers in public service and helps prepare them for the challenges they will face as future leaders. The study has been conducted by Hart Research Associates since 2001 and explores students’ attitudes and opinions on a wide range of topics, including social trends, political preferences, personal career expectations and a variety of national and international issues.

In addition to viewing the United States economy in negative terms, a strong majority of students in this survey (69 percent) believe that America is “on the decline,” and 52 percent express dissatisfaction with “the quality of the country’s political leadership today.” Both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, who had established nearly insurmountable leads in their respective parties’ delegate counts at the time of the survey, draw sharply negative reactions from students. More than two-thirds (69 percent) say they would feel uncertain or pessimistic if Clinton were elected president, and that number jumps to 88 percent at the prospect of a Trump presidency.

Meanwhile, in a primary election matchup with Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton loses among Democratic and Democratic-leaning students in this survey by a margin of 74 percent to 16 percent. In a general election matchup among all students, however, Clinton trounces Trump, by 60 percent to 26 percent.

While college students express serious concerns about the negative tone of the presidential campaign, this does not appear to have diminished their interest in the race or their belief that the outcome will make a difference for them personally. Fully 74 percent say they are closely following the presidential contest (up from 62 percent last year) and 59 percent say that politics is relevant to their lives (unchanged from last year).

In addition, nearly one-third of students (32 percent) report that they are actually involved in a presidential campaign, and by a margin of two to one students say that the bruising presidential contest has made them more rather than less interested in politics.

“We find this level of engagement quite encouraging,” says Institute co-chair and CEO, Sylvia M. Panetta, “particularly in light of how controversial so much of the primary campaign rhetoric has been.”

President Obama’s popularity on campus has risen significantly since the Institute’s survey a year ago. In personal terms, 62 percent of college students express positive feelings toward the president, with only 21 percent holding a negative view – a change from 55 percent positive and 29 negative in April of last year. Similarly, the president’s job approval rating has risen substantially – from 65 percent in April 2015 to 75 percent in this study, which is far higher than the roughly 50 percent job approval ratings he has received in recent days in polls of United States adults overall.

This year’s Panetta Institute survey also shows a continuing high level of interest among students in serving in elective office themselves. Thirty-one percent say they would be interested in running for the United States Congress or Senate if the opportunity arose, and that number rises to 35 percent in the case of local or state elected office – figures that are essentially unchanged from last year.

Interest in participating in service-oriented experiences like Teach for America, VISTA and AmeriCorps, however, has dropped 10 points, from 37 percent last year to 27 percent now.

Looking to the future, today’s college students believe, by 58 percent versus 42 percent, that the problems facing their generation are more likely to be national rather than international in scope, and they tend, by a narrow margin, to prefer that the country become less rather than more active in world affairs.

The proportion of students who say global warming is a somewhat serious or very serious problem continues to rise – from 71 percent in 2010, to 80 percent in 2015, to 86 percent in this survey, with the “very serious” response (55 percent) jumping 14 points since last year.

When it comes to the balance between intelligence gathering and rights to privacy, college students are overwhelmingly more concerned that the United States government will go too far and violate the privacy of average citizens in its efforts to combat terrorism. Students who worry more that rights will be violated outnumber those who worry more that government agencies won’t go far enough by a factor of two to one (67 percent to 33 percent).

This contrasts dramatically with the views of United States adults overall, who according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll are more concerned (by 47 percent to 44 percent) that the government won’t go far enough in its efforts to monitor potential terrorists.

Looking at recent social trends, the Institute’s survey finds a high degree of acceptance on campus of people of differing ethnicities, beliefs and backgrounds. Fully 89 percent of students view the increasing ethnic diversity of America as a positive change, and 90 percent view as positive the increasing acceptance of people with differing lifestyles.

Also, 71 percent of students say the United States should welcome Syrian refugees as long as they go through a security clearance process, as opposed to just 49 percent of United States adults who expressed this view in a recent CBS/New York Times poll.

For this year’s Panetta survey, Hart Research conducted online interviews with 801 students at four-year colleges across the country from April 22 to 28, 2016.

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

Past Surveys

Students Supportive of National Service in Exchange for Financial Aid and More Focused on International Issues

(April, 2015)

The Panetta Institute for Public Policy’s spring survey finds 63 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

(April, 2014)

Our 2014 survey showed United States college students turning away from international issues and entanglements and 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

(April, 2012)

Our 2012 survey showed only 24 percent of U.S. college students feeling “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


In our 2011 survey, we found that U.S. college students had turned dramatically more negative in their views of where the country was 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


In our 2010 survey, we found that 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


In our 2009 survey, we found that although U.S. college students knew they face challenges in the deeply troubled economy, they were 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)
In our May 2008 survey, we found that although opposition to the war in Iraq remained strong on U.S. campuses, American college students were 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)
In our April 2007 survey, we found a growing percentage of U.S. college students believing the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and an overwhelming majority supporting a specific timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. Students also expressed 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)
Our June 2006 survey showed the nation’s college students were unhappy with the current path of the country, but they expressed 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)
In our 2005 survey, college students expressed 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 faced big challenges on U.S. college campuses in 2004, according to a Panetta Institute survey. 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 Sept. 11th (5/31/02)
By wide margins, U.S. college students in 2002 believed 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)
A nationwide survey of college students conducted for the Panetta Institute in 2000 revealed that 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)
Our 1999 national survey showed that college students had little interest in politics or political careers but nonetheless were 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>>