How conservative policy is changing college enrolment trends

Gun Rights



A large majority of American college and university students are so strongly in favour of abortion, gun control and the freedom to study ‘divisive topics’ such as critical race theory that they are either considering leaving their colleges or not applying to those in so-called ‘Red States’ like Florida, where (Republican) Governor Ron DeSantis has been waging a culture war against these issues.

These findings are contained in a report, Policies and Laws: How they’re impacting college enrolment, published by the Lumina Foundation (Lumina), an NGO based in Indianapolis, Indiana that works to increase opportunities for access and success in tertiary education for all Americans, in conjunction with Gallup global analytics firm. Last fall, Gallup surveyed 14,000 Americans, half of whom are enrolled in either two-year community colleges, and half in four-year institutions.

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Additional important findings concern black and Asian attitudes about whether to apply to post-secondary studies in the wake of last June’s landmark decision of the Supreme Court of the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) that declared affirmative action unconstitutional.

One of the arguments the plaintiffs made in the case of Fair Admissions v Harvard University (Fair Admissions) was that race conscious admissions unfairly advantaged black applicants to the disadvantage of Asian applicants to college and university. Accordingly, when compared to white or Hispanic students, a sharply higher percentage of black and Asian Americans reported that the ruling impacted their decisions about whether, and where, to apply to college.

The top four responses, each of which scored 90% or more, were perennial concerns of college students – and are the subject of admission offices’ public relations materials: opportunity for a good paying job in one’s chosen field; control over days and times the student is required to be on campus; tuition; and the school’s academic reputation. Post-COVID, it is no surprise that taking classes and completing their programme online was important to 86% of students.

“We know that students want a good job at the end of the day. We also know that today’s students have many other responsibilities, so they want some autonomy or control over what they’re doing. They want to make sure costs are aligned,” said Courtney Brown, Lumina’s vice president of impact and planning.

“But this year, we also wanted to see what other factors are impacting how students decide to enrol in a college, and how impactful are some state policies. And those are campus policies regarding guns and reproductive rights in a state, about the ability to talk about different issues. And while those were not [rated] as highly as we see with costs or getting a good job, still, for a majority of students, these are important factors in deciding where they’re going to go to college,” she said.

Gun laws

On 3 October 2023, six days before Gallup began conducting the survey, four students and another person were injured by a gunman at Morgan State University in Baltimore, a historically black college and university (HBCU); nine months earlier, three students were gunned down and five others injured at Michigan State University (East Lansing, Michigan). And three months before that mass shooting (November 2022), a gunman fired into a bus filled with students returning to the University of Virginia (Charlottesville), killing three students and injuring two others. In 2022 and 2023, there were 89 school shootings in K-12 schools across America, in which 61 students, faculty or staff were killed and 142 injured.

In half of America’s 50 states, individuals do not need a permit to carry a concealed firearm. 13 states have ‘Shall Issue’ laws, meaning that the state must issue a licence to carry a concealed weapon as long as the applicant passes a background check and-or a gun safety course. 12 states have more restrictive laws.

Against this background, 80% of respondents said that gun regulations were between “Somewhat Important” and “Extremely Important” when it came to deciding where they wanted to study. Of these students, 84% (or 67% of the total) favoured “More Restrictive” gun laws and campus policies. The 67% of America’s college students favouring stronger gun control aligns with a CNN Poll taken in May of 2023 that found that 64% of Americans wanted more controls on guns.

According to the CNN poll, only 36% of Republicans favour increased gun controls, which means that almost two-thirds of Republicans align themselves with the National Rifle Association, its congressional supporters, such as Republican senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and congresspersons such as Marjory Taylor Greene and Lorene Boebert, and the SCOTUS’ absolutist position on the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution (“the right to bear arms”). Lumina found, however, that 71% of Republican students favoured stronger gun controls.

According to Andy Pelosi, director of the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus, based in Croton Falls, New York (88 kilometres north of New York City), the Republican students’ results are in keeping with historical trends.

“The vast majority of students, I’m talking numbers in the 80s, oppose guns on college campuses. That poll is pretty much in line with what we’ve been seeing over the last 10 or 12 years,” he said before adding that the Campaign “works with stakeholders and college presidents, and you won’t have college presidents going to state legislatures, for example, and saying, we want our students and our faculty to carry guns on campus. It just doesn’t happen.”

Abortion rights

In last week’s special election in Alabama, Democrat Marilyn Landis, who campaigned on a strong abortion rights platform, which included telling of her own abortion, won a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives by 26% in a district that President Donald J Trump carried with 53% of the vote in 2020, and in a state where almost 60% of residents say that abortion should be “illegal in all or most cases”.

In last year’s election, held on 7 November, when Gallup’s pollsters were in the field, voters in Ohio enshrined abortion rights in the state’s constitution, while in Kentucky, incumbent Democratic Governor Andy Beshear defeated an anti-abortion Republican challenger. In Virginia, voters gave control of the state legislature to the Democrats, thus defeating Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin’s campaign to have a Republican-controlled legislature in place so it could pass anti-abortion legislation.

Each of these elections focused on reproductive rights because last June, in the case of Dobbs v Jackson, the SCOTUS overruled Roe v Wade, the 1973 case in which the SCOTUS declared that women had a constitutional right to abortion.

Dobbs did not outlaw abortion but said that each state can set its own laws dealing with abortion rights. Fourteen states, including Texas, South Dakota, Utah and Louisiana, had laws either banning or severely restricting abortion on the books – so-called ‘trigger laws’, that came into effect either immediately or shortly after the SCOTUS’s decision.

Other states, including Florida and North Carolina, have passed severely restrictive laws since the SCOTUS’ decision. A number of these laws are now before the courts.

Fully 71% of respondents told Gallup that “Reproductive healthcare policies” affect their plans to continue to study in a particular state or where they will apply to study. The figure is the same for both male and female students. However, Gallup’s study shows that while a strong majority of that 71% favour less restrictive abortion laws, men are almost three times as likely to favour more restrictive laws: 29% to 11%.

At 34%, Asians are the group that most favours more restrictive laws with Whites the next highest at 24%.

As with gun control, Republican students have more liberal views on reproductive rights than do Republicans in general. Overall, only 38% of Republicans favoured more lenient laws on abortion. By contrast, 83% of the students Gallup surveyed do. The difference among Democrats was only six percentage points, with 80% of students who are Democrats favouring lenient laws as compared to 80% of Democrats overall.

‘Divisive topics’

As covered in University World News, a number of states, including Texas, Alabama, Georgia, South Dakota, North Dakota and, most famously, Florida, have either banned or tried to ban the teaching of critical race theory and other “divisive topics” that take a critical stance towards the study of American history or society.

Neither prospective nor present college and university students are supportive of these actions. 76% who said that these policies are important to their decisions about whether to continue studying in the state in which they presently study, or where to apply to college or university, say they favour “Less Restrictive” states. This means that 57.7% of the total number of students favour “Less Restrictive” states while only 18.4% are attracted by the idea of studying in a state that is “More Restrictive”.

Both before and during his abortive run for the 2024 Republican nomination for the presidency, DeSantis, as he still does, billed himself as America’s chief culture warrior, branding Florida as the state where “woke goes to die”.

The large percentage found by Gallup that opposes restrictions such as those legislated under DeSantis, may partially explain why in 2023 Florida recorded a 0.1% increase in students while its neighbouring states (the governors of which were significantly less bellicose about their restrictions) recorded a more than 3% growth.

Likewise, Texas, whose Republican governor Gregg Abbott is vocal about how his state is fighting woke, recorded a 1.1% increase in students between 2022 and 2023 while the states that neighbour Texas recorded between 1.6% and 1.9% increases in the number of students who enrolled in those states’ colleges and universities. (These states, too, have moved to restrict campus discussions of ideas including critical race theory, but their governors have not, as Abbott has, drawn national attention to themselves.)

The difference between female and male students in regard to favouring less restrictive policies on divisive topics was twelve percentage points: 82% to 70%. Gallup’s disaggregation by race found a 12-percentage point difference between Asians (70%) and blacks (82%), with 80% of Hispanics and 72% of whites favouring less restrictive policies on divisive topics.

The views by party were pronounced, though: 61% of Republicans favoured less restrictive policies on divisive topics. For Democrats, the figure was 83%.

Impact on black students

The Lumina survey did not ask where students influenced by the SCOTUS affirmative action banning are likely to apply. The finding that 48% of blacks said that the decision would impact where they would apply is consistent with another trend: marked increases in enrolment in several of the nation’s HBCUs.

Between 2022 and 2023, North Carolina A&T State University (Greensboro) saw an increase of 3%. Between 2021 and 2022, Howard University (Washington DC) saw an increase of 7.65%. More than 13,000 students applied to Wilberforce University in 2023, compared with about 2,000 a decade ago; the university in Wilberforce, Ohio, enrolled 29% more students than it did the previous year.

A more sobering finding concerns the 56% of blacks who said that Fair Admissions will impact their decision on whether to pursue a college degree in the first place. According to Lumina, “black respondents may be less likely to apply” to college because of the SCOTUS decision, partly because, as Justin McCarthy wrote in a Gallup report published last January:

“About half of black adults say the ruling will negatively impact higher education in the US (50%) and the ability of applicants of their own race to attend college (52%)”.

A lack of alignment

“What is the takeaway of the study’s findings for readers outside the United States?” I asked Brown.

She began her answer by saying: “I think it’s important for people outside the United States to understand that the policies that they are hearing about on the news are not necessarily the policies that align with what people who attend college want.

“It’s clear from these data that when they are thinking about college, regardless of gender, age or party affiliation, individuals want to go to a campus where they feel safe. They want more restrictive gun laws. They also want less restrictive reproductive laws and to be able to talk about different issues, which is counter to what we are hearing from some states.”

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