IOP Study Finds Students Prefer Service to Politics

A national survey of college students conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP) has found that undergraduates choose community service over political activism as a vehicle for social change.

According to the results, released Friday by the IOP, only 14 percent of undergraduates nationwide say they have participated in a government, political or issues-related organization in the last year, while 61 percent performed community service.

“The fact that students are very interested in public service but not politics shows that they really want to contribute to the world around them but don’t see politics as a way to solve their problems,” said IOP Director Daniel R. Glickman.

But the study also found that even though college students do not participate in politics, they remain very optimistic about enacting change through political channels.

“One of the most important things we found is that there is some untapped interest, because they do believe politics is a way to change things,” said Ryan D. Rippel ’04, co-chair of the working group that created and executed the survey. “This is an opportunity to bring more people in.”


Even though American college students are not politically engaged, two-thirds of respondents said they consider politics relevant to their lives, and 42 percent follow the news on a daily basis.

The survey also found that black students are more politically active and more skeptical of America’s political system than white students.

While 60 percent of white students expect tangible results from political involvement, only 46 percent of their black counterparts do.

But the IOP report found that blacks “are the most likely ethnic group to vote and are more likely to be involved in political organizations than the general student population.”

Only 35 percent of white college students vote, while 46 percent of black undergraduates go to the polls, according to the survey.

The IOP report finds that college students combine political knowledge minus activism and high commitment to community service. That pairing suggests that “college students have fashioned a political culture in which activism is not a function of awareness, and civic engagement is not exhibited by marching for a campaign or movement, but is instead service to the underprivileged.”

The report also called for politicians to engage in more direct contact with students.

Ninety-two percent of respondents said that more direct contact with elected officials, political candidates and others in government would be an effective way of getting students involved in politics.

“Students are calling for increased access to current leaders and new opportunities to get acquainted with the practical side of the political system at an early age,” according to the report.

Glickman said the results of the survey indicate that the IOP should try to help students gain more access to politicians.