Does College Eat Conservative Brains?­­

­­By Nathaniel Nakon

Colleges and professors across the United States are often accused of having a “left-leaning” bias, that is, subscribing to more liberal political beliefs.  That claim has been widely covered (such as here) and is often used to justify the claim that college turns students into liberal Democrats.  While the validity of this statement has been evaluated previously, it still poses an interesting question with regards to the ideology of students on individual campuses across the United States, as each school is unique with regards to its political culture – Denison is not Oberlin, Kenyon, or OWU. For this reason, I have decided to explore the political leanings of Denison students and how they change over time.

It is worthwhile to first get a feeling for the overall political landscape at Denison.  The figures below draw from a survey that sampled over 600 students in October of 2015.  As you can see in Figure 1, the campus as a whole certainly leans heavily toward the left, with approximately 57.5% identifying as a Democrat (45 percent in the adult population) and 59% identifying as liberal (26% in the adult population).  It’s notable that 54% would call themselves independent, though many lean Democratic.

Figure 1 – Party Identification and Ideology of Denison Students, Fall 2015


How did this pattern come to be? Is the left skew a result of indoctrination or is it simply a result of who Denison attracts? In order to evaluate this question, I added data from a survey conducted in the fall of 2012, which also sampled about 600 students, and asked identical questions with regards to political affiliations. This enables us to compare the political leanings of the class of 2016 when they were freshmen to when they were seniors.  Unfortunately, we were not able to match individuals from the surveys, but we can look for movement in the leanings of the class during the two years (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Party Identification and Ideology from First to Senior Years, Class of 2016


The figure shows no significant change in ideology or partisanship over the course of their time at Denison (see note 1).  The distributions are not identical, but, if anything, the majority of the movement actually appears to be more towards the center of the scales – that is, there is a hint here that students are actually becoming more independent/moderate and less devoted to one particular party/ideology.  Of course, it is important to note that the validity of these results is wholly dependent on the assumption that the sampling in both surveys was truly representative of the class at the time that it was administered (see note 2).

We should check to see if these results are unique to the class of 2016.  Figure 3 shows the average political ideology scores  for each class from 2013 to 2019. The evidence shows that the ideologies of each class are not identical and bounce around a bit across the years centered around “slightly liberal.” However, there is no statistical difference between any pairs of classes across the board. From these results, the class of 2016 is not a unicorn (though they are special snowflakes, every last one of them).  Therefore, we can consider the important question of whether the school chooses the student, or the student chooses the school.  Given that Denison generally does not have information on the political leanings of students prior to their acceptance, we need to give credence to the idea that it is likely self-selection on the part of the student that provides for this political makeup.

Figure 3: Average Political Ideology Score by Class Year


So, why would we see no evidence of indoctrination at Denison? Perhaps we can attribute this to the fact that even though the student body as a whole tends to lean more toward the left, the campus does not cater only to these individuals, and sometimes blatantly challenges their beliefs, with controversial speakers such as Bobby Jindal and Oliver North (and most Denison students are willing to hear the other side). Moreover, even if Denison professors are more liberal than the average citizen (we have no data on this!) the culture of learning that Denison promotes is not one that tends to preach an agenda.  Even though a professor might wear his or her own political affiliations on their sleeve, classes tend to promote intellectual challenges and understanding of diverse viewpoints, rather than instilling particular ones.

When not writing for One Twenty Seven, Nathaniel Nakon can be found in the Knapp lab, attempting to break the world with numbers and keystrokes.


1. The mean ideology shifted from 3.16 as freshmen to 3.21 as seniors (thus very slightly more conservative), which is an insignificant difference (p=.74). Their partisanship was 3.47 in 2012 and 3.49 in 2015 as seniors, also an insignificant difference (p=.92).

2. We can compare a limited number of demographic items to assess whether the sampling was biased. The only one available in both samples was gender – the estimates were 65% in 2012 and 60% in 2015. The 2012 statistic is high by about 7 points, the 2016 stat is high by 2-3 points. While the samples are not perfectly representative of the campus, the fact that they are both skewed in the same direction enhances their comparability. And, yes, there’s a gender gap in partisanship and ideology – women are about 9 percent more liberal and Democratic than men at Denison.

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