Updated Apr 22, 2023 - Politics & Policy

State politics are driving high schoolers' college decisions

Illustration of a felt pennant with a checkmark on it being covered in a felt no-sign.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A quarter of prospective college students say they'd shun a school in a state whose politics or policies they abhor, a recent survey finds.

  • The finding is true whether a student says they're a liberal, moderate or conservative, per the report, published by higher-ed consultancy Art & Science Group.

In a separate survey by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation published Thursday, 72% of college students said that the reproductive health laws in their school's state affected their decision to stay enrolled.

  • Among adults ages 18-59 without a college degree, 60% said such laws would affect their decision to attend a specific college or university.

Why it matters: Americans are choosing where to live and whom to associate with based on politics, exacerbating polarization.

  • And, judging by these polls, that process is beginning at a young age.
  • As free speech battles play out on campuses nationwide, growing imbalances in the politics of the student body could further stifle healthy debate.

Driving the news: In a poll of 1,865 college-bound high school seniors conducted this winter by Art & Science Group, 1 in 4 said they passed over a school they had initially considered based exclusively on state-level policies or politics.

  • Conservative-leaning students were most likely to strike either California or New York off their college lists, while liberal-leaning students name-checked Alabama, Texas, Louisiana and Florida.
  • Among the quarter of students who said that a state's prevailing "politics, policies and legal situations" made a difference to them, 32% said they'd rule out going to school in their own state — a surprise, given that the majority of college students go to school close to home.

The top reasons left-leaning students gave for ruling out schools in a particular state were that they were too conservative overall, as well as too conservative on abortion and reproductive rights specifically.

  • Other considerations included a lack of concern about racial equity, conservative LGBTQ+ laws, poor gun control and a lack of mental health support.

Right-leaning students were more likely to rule out states for being "too Democratic overall" than for particular issues.

  • Those who did cite issues most commonly said they thought the states in question were too liberal on LGBTQ+ laws, too eager to quash conservative voices, and too liberal on abortion and reproductive rights.

What they're saying: "What struck me most was that it was a full quarter of students who told us this, and that a third of [that group] were ruling out schools in their own states," David Strauss, principal of the Art & Science Group, tells Axios.

  • Also surprising was that "this was true across the ideological spectrum," Strauss says.
  • While his firm hasn't done any longitudinal studies on the subject, Strauss' view as a longtime consultant in the field is that this sort of political stratification "is just picking up steam."
  • "It concerns me that if this actually contributes to more sorting in our society, we will be more divided yet again — now physically."

Yes, but: The high schoolers' responses won't necessarily translate into voting with their feet — a Republican student accepted to Harvard might be willing to overlook that it's in liberal Massachusetts.

Share of college students who say reproductive health laws are important to their decision to enroll
Data: Lumina Foundation, Gallup; Chart: Axios Visuals

Backstory: Strauss said his company decided to conduct the poll when "we started getting calls from some of our clients after Dobbs," the Supreme Court's landmark decision last June to end the constitutional right to an abortion.

  • "We had a call — it was days after Dobbs — and this college president was saying, 'We've already had calls saying, 'I'm not coming back.' We've already had calls asking, 'What are you going to do to protect my daughter?'"
  • At the same time, "we've been hearing from the other side of the aisle, questions about whether conservative voices are not welcomed" on campus.

Of note: Nearly half of college students told pollsters in 2022 that they wouldn't share a dorm room with someone of the opposite political party.

Between the lines: "This is going to add a significant dollop of structural disadvantage to some institutions," depending where they're located, Strauss said.

  • "I imagine if we did this today the numbers would be higher still because there's more of a fever pitch out there," he added.

Methodology: Art & Science Group interviewed 1,865 domestic high school seniors in January and February of 2023; 62% were female and 62% were white. Responses were weighted to reflect the larger domestic college-going population; the margin of error was plus or minus 3.5%.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 20.

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