Why College Students Drift Left: The Stability of Political Identity and Relative Malleability of Issue Positions among College Students

Matthew Woessner, United States Army
April Kelly-Woessner, Elizabethtown College


In considering the liberalizing effect of college on students' political values, we argue that political identities - in the form of self-identified ideology or partisanship - are components of social identity and are resistant to change. Using data from the Higher Education Research Institute's student surveys, we show that what movement in identity does occur is mostly a regression to the mean effect. On several issue positions, however, students move in a more uniform leftward direction. We find that liberal drift on issues is most common among students majoring in the arts and humanities. Self-reported ideology does drift left at liberal arts colleges, but this is explained by a peer effect: students at liberal arts colleges drift more to the left because they have more liberal peers. The results have implications for future research on college student political development, suggesting that attitudinal change can be more easily identified by examining shifts in policy preferences rather than changes in political identity.