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.
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