Crafting a political identity: How college fosters growth, but politics can get in the way

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Logan Stanley graduated from Boise State in the fall of 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in political science. She now works for Next Generation Leadership Idaho, a Political Action Committee (PAC) that prepares people to run in Idaho’s progressive political arenas. Her work is important to her. Her parents would rather not talk about it.

“I’ve had my dad tell me multiple times that, ‘If I would have known that this was what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have sent my kids to college,’” Stanley said.

College grants a new taste of independence for many students, and an opportunity to expand one’s identity, which often includes political belief. 

In a turbulent political climate with a deepening urban-rural divide, universities could confirm what conservative rural Americans fear: that colleges are liberalizing young Americans. On the other hand, colleges have the opportunity to give students the freedom to come to their own conclusions through their learning. 

Though a recent study by the University of Arkansas shows that college faculty do not discriminate against conservative students in grades, Pew Research shows that over the last decade and particularly from 2015 to 2017, Republicans are increasingly displeased by the perceived effects of college. College approval rates among Republicans fell from 54% in 2015 to 33% in 2017. Disapproval rates inverted at almost the exact same rate in the same timeframe, with the most recent data from 2019 showing college disapproval at 59% among Republicans.

The myth: universities are liberalizing young Americans

Stanley, a first-generation college student, grew up in a conservative family in rural central California. It was not until Stanley took an American politics class in college that she began to doubt her original beliefs.

Similar stories are common among college students. According to Dr. Charles Hunt, an assistant professor of political science who focuses on American political representation and polarization, college students often question the political ideals they were raised around.

“When you go to college, especially if you go to even a minor metropolitan area like Boise, if you’re not from there, then you’re exposed to a lot of different people,” Hunt said. “And when that happens, that is usually something that tends to contribute to a more progressive or liberal political ideology — a sort of openness to other experiences.”

Many factors contribute to the socially progressive demographics common on university campuses. The Pew Research Center shows that young adults are consistently among the most socially progressive Americans, and the urban areas where many university campuses are located are increasingly progressive, particularly on social issues such as race, gender and sexuality. Among some rural communities, universities including Boise State seem full of leftist intellectuals trying to indoctrinate students, an idea that sells — conservative pundit Ben Shapiro even wrote a book about it.

Stanley’s perspective changed in the classroom, shifting from the absorption of conservative talking points to forming her own ideas based on the literature she was reading.

“It wasn’t so much the whole concept of the university structure that made me liberal,” Stanley said. “It was more of critically thinking through facts and seeing the numbers and how things actually work is what made my ideology shift.”

In the same way that students are led to reflect on outside influences, academia causes students to reflect on their own identities and how they experience the world.

For Rex Bartlett, a senior communications and political science double major from a conservative family, his studies led him to critique the entire American political system and embrace a centrist, or politically moderate, identity. His communication courses allowed him to analyze political advertising and rhetoric, and Bartlett realized early in his studies that identities like race and gender greatly impact political messaging. 

As a white, straight and cisgender man, Bartlett realized he had often reacted defensively to others rather than examining his own identity in politics.

“The more you learn, you either have to double down as kind of a defense mechanism and wear your ideologies as a defense, or you’re open and vulnerable and that’s a much scarier thing,” Bartlett said. “And you have to realize that you don’t know as much as you think you do.”

Developing political independence

College gives students the freedom to choose what they study, where they work and who they spend their time with in an often unprecedented manner, and the effects of those decisions have lasting impacts on students.

Dr. Kimberly Henderson is a senior lecturer in the psychology department who focuses on a relatively new development in psychology, known as emerging adulthood. First introduced by Jeffrey Arnett in 2000, emerging adulthood is the phase of life experienced by people from 18 to 25 years of age — mostly in industrialized societies — as young adults make a historically slow transition to independence, spending more energy and resources on self-exploration and identity seeking.

“The big piece here is the independence, because now with sort of this cultural mandate for college, students are dependent on their parents for much longer,” Henderson said. “College kind of delays making some big decisions — you get a temporary job, you get a temporary roommate. Things are very transitory during the college period, in the prototypical college experience.”

Madeline Grendeau is a freshman environmental studies and geosciences double major from Spokane, Wash. Though downtown Spokane is a liberal hub, Grendeau’s family lives on the outskirts of the city, a conservative area more similar to the surrounding region of eastern Washington and northern Idaho.

Grendeau began paying attention to politics during the 2012 presidential election as the protests that led to the Black Lives Matter movement began. Around the same time, climate change entered her conservative family’s dialogue while she attended Mead High School, which received some of the highest threats of shooting violence of any high school in the country. 

Though she is now a Democrat and her family is conservative, Grendeau said that conversations with them challenged her to think independently.

“While it’d be great to have everyone agree, it’s good to have that civil discourse because it allows me to really explore why I believe what I believe,” Grendeau said.

Grendeau’s experience matches what Henderson has seen in the data on emerging adulthood, as people experiment with ideas together.

“There really is this next level that has to do with authoring the self, really taking our environment, taking the ideas, taking the cultural constructs, internalizing them, and then really having time and experience to see, like, ‘How well does this ideology fit with what I truly believe?’” Henderson said.

Hunt said that when people come to their own conclusions, they are able to separate their political identity from their personal identity better, allowing them to avoid bias.

“I think it’s pretty indisputably good when people, especially college-aged students, come into their political opinions and identities through their own effort and reasoning,” Hunt said. “I think that is a really organic and rigorous way to approach political identity.”

The current political climate and its consequences

Students are not only impacted by a university’s academic or social culture but a combination of the two. Henderson said that in emerging adulthood, peers are the most impactful influences.

“What we run into at university is we get exposed to things that we normally wouldn’t choose for ourselves,” Henderson said. “When we make a shift through our adolescence, where our reference points are, where we get the majority of our information, in that adolescent transition we really shift from going to our parents as authorities to turning to our friends as authorities.”

According to Hunt, parents are overwhelmingly the largest political influences for young adults, and while students almost always differ in some ways from their parents — particularly on social issues — students who have opposite political ideologies from their parents are the exception, not the rule.

Yet anti-university rhetoric persists and could continue to deepen political division. Hunt said that when people in conservative, rural areas are unhappy with the college system and discourage their children from attending universities, college campuses are cut off from essential voices. 

In Hunt’s polarization classes, he stresses the importance of meeting other people where they are, even if it feels uncomfortable or vulnerable. If that cannot happen at an individual and institutional level, Hunt said that people in rural, conservative communities will continue to distance themselves from universities, and vice versa.

“The idea is not to indoctrinate anyone,” Hunt said. “It’s not to instill a political ideology. It’s, in fact, quite the opposite. It’s to give students the tools to determine their own political ideology.”

Additionally, Hunt commended Boise State’s president, Dr. Marlene Tromp, for leading efforts to connect with rural communities around the state, meeting legislators and starting conversations about how Boise State can best serve students from Idaho and around the world.

“I think we would disserve our students if what we were was simply an ideological machine,” Tromp said in a January interview with The Arbiter. “Because if we’re preparing you to go out in the world to be leaders, you’ve got to be a person of your own mind.”

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1 Comment

  1. I appreciate this article and what it has to say about college creating independent political identities. I, myself, am from a small, rural town, and had my political ideologies change after I came to BSU. However, I fail to see how this should be filed as “news” rather than a discussion of culture and politics. It doesn’t feel like it is reporting on anything, but is rather talking about student opinion and the culture and politics of college. Can you please explain why it is categorized this way?

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