One in four college applicants avoids entire states for political reasons
A new survey, drawing notice in academia, shows that 1 in 4 applicants decided against applying to a college this year solely because of the politics in its state.
The finding, long rumored in college admissions circles, has dire implications for some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions.
Tulane University in Louisiana, Stanford in California, Rice in Texas, Columbia in New York and the University of Miami all pride themselves on assembling a class from large pools of applicants drawn from every state. In the public sector, the University of Alabama counts on out-of-state admissions for revenue, enrolling nearly three-fifths of its students from outside its borders.
Yet, large numbers of conservative and liberal applicants ruled out those schools, along with their states, because of partisan politics.
“When you’re making a decision about a school, it’s really about choosing a community to live in,” said Chloe Chaffin, 20, a junior at Washburn University in Kansas. “Students want to feel that they belong to the city-community beyond the campus walls.”
Chaffin chose to attend college near her home in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe. She identifies as a liberal and works as an abortion-rights activist. One reason she didn’t leave Kansas was the landslide defeat last summer of a ballot measure that would have stripped abortion rights from the state constitution, part of a national upheaval in abortion law.
The new survey found that 31 percent of liberal applicants struck colleges from their lists for political reasons, especially abortion rights. The most-rejected states were Alabama, Texas, Louisiana and Florida.
“It actually tracks with conversations I’ve been having with my peers,” said Gregory Koger, a political scientist at the University of Miami. “If you’re female, there’s some chance that you might need access to an abortion, and there are some states where that’s not possible. If you’re LGBTQ, you want to go to schools and to states that are friendly toward that.”
Likewise, 28 percent of conservative applicants ruled out states on political grounds, namely California and New York. Conservatives rejected states less for specific policies and more for fear of an overarching, oppressive liberalism, on campus and off.
“I completely understand why some people would choose to be with their own, as opposed to being in a sea of people who are politically opposed to them, on either side of the aisle,” said Nate Sirotovitch, 20, a junior at New York University who leads the College Republicans.
Sirotovitch lives in conservative-leaning Florida but chose a college in liberal New York, confident he would find friends across the political spectrum, which he did. To him, the survey illustrates the nation’s growing partisan divide.
“If we stay in our echo chamber,” he said, “it’s only going to get worse.”
More than their conservative peers, liberals voiced specific concerns in the survey about becoming trapped in a state with no abortion rights, intolerance of the queer community and Wild-West gun laws.
One issue, at least, cut across ideological lines. A significant share of conservatives joined their liberal classmates in rejecting states with restrictive abortion laws.
The survey comes from the Art & Science Group, a consulting and research firm that serves the higher-education sector. Surveyors interviewed 1,865 high-school seniors in January and February and balanced the results to reflect the college-bound population.
David Strauss, a principal at Art & Science, said he does not know of a prior survey that asked if college applicants rejected schools over local politics.
“It was always anecdotal before, as far as we can tell,” he said. “We started hearing last year from clients who would say, ‘I just got a phone call from a student who said she’s not coming back,’ or a phone call from a student saying, ‘I’m not coming back.’”
Generations of college applicants have avoided specific colleges or entire regions for political reasons. Some conservatives complain that liberal campuses suffocate opposing views. New England liberals might not consider a campus south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Local politics took on new urgency last summer with a landmark Supreme Court ruling that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion. Many conservative states responded by curbing abortion rights.
“There are real, tangible threats to people’s physical and medical wellbeing,” said Jenna Gorton, 22, a classmate of Chaffin at Washburn University. “I think it’s really hard for younger people to avoid being involved in this discourse.”
Even in this mobile age, the impulse to cross the country for college is far from universal. Most Americans attend college within their state: Around 90 percent in Texas and California, 80 percent in Illinois and Florida, 70 percent in Pennsylvania and Arizona, according to federal data from 2019.
But many elite campuses accept half or more of their students from out of state. And in the new survey, many applicants said they rejected colleges in their own states on political grounds.
The least popular state among college applicants, eschewed by 38 percent of those who rejected any state, was Alabama. Most abortions are banned in Alabama. The Cotton State has some of the nation’s least restrictive gun laws.
After Alabama, the most-avoided state was Texas. Most abortions in Texas are banned at six weeks of pregnancy. Texas also poses a challenge for students of any ideology who wish to vote. Texas is 1 of 6 states that do not accept student IDs for balloting purposes. Republican lawmakers in several states are working to narrow voting options for college students, who tend to vote Democratic.
As a recruitment issue, Texas politics matter to Rice University, an elite Houston campus that draws only 36 percent of its students from within the state.
Kavya Sahni, 22, is a Rice senior. When she applied to American colleges from her home in India, she recalled, “all of the schools on my list were in the Northeast. I had maybe one in California. And I think the one school that I picked anywhere in the South was Rice.”
When Sahni told her parents she had applied to a college in Texas, they asked, “Are you going to be safe?”
Four years later, Sahni is leading the school’s Young Democrats and heading to Harvard Law School.
“Rice is a great school,” she said.
Louisiana and Florida ranked third and fourth among states most likely to be crossed from an applicant’s list.
Notably, Florida is home to Ron DeSantis, the conservative governor and potential presidential candidate. DeSantis has leveraged the Sunshine State as a public stage to wage an “anti-woke” campaign. He backed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which blocks teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms. He has promoted legislation to ban critical race theory, an academic framework evaluating U.S. history through the lens of racism that has become a political catch-all buzzword for any race-related teaching, and African-American studies.
Some of those measures may have consequences the governor did not intend, said Sharon Austin, a political scientist at the University of Florida.
African-American studies has been a popular major for Black football players at Florida because the program represents “one of the few places on campus where you could actually find Black professors,” she said.
House Bill 999, a pending state measure, targets programs that “espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion,” language that could be read to encompass African-American studies.
“That is something that probably very concerning to them,” Austin said of the Black players. “And they are probably going to put some pressure on somebody. Because these are star athletes.”
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