Diverse and Divided: A Political Demography of American Elite Students


  • America’s elite university students are more demographically diverse than the general population, but more politically divided along lines of race, gender, sexuality, and religion.
  • Minority and female students are far more liberal on campus than in the general population, whereas straight white Christian men are somewhat more conservative on campus than in the general population. Current trends portend a politics in which elite women, minorities, gays, and the nonreligious are more left-leaning while elite whites, males, and Christians remain relatively conservative.
  • White Christians tend to cluster in red state flagship universities, which are the most politically balanced in the country and have similar shares of liberal and conservative students. Yet many flagship universities in flyover states with conservative reputations actually have more liberal than conservative students.
  • A quarter of students are LGBT, and there are roughly equal shares of Christian and nonreligious students. LGBT, Nonreligious, and Christians are set to become more important political groups among America’s future leaders.
  • Liberal arts colleges are the least politically diverse. Many have almost no conservatives, and thus very low viewpoint diversity. But they have high sexual diversity, at nearly 40 percent LGBT.
  • Ivy League schools average 10-15 percent conservative and 60-75 percent liberal. Across 150 leading schools, there are nearly 2.5 liberals for every conservative.
  • Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 55-23 margin on campus, and liberals outnumber conservatives 53-21. Elite students are thus two-thirds more Democratic and twice as liberal as the American population.
  • Among elite students, there is a 15-point gender gap in political ideology and party identification between men and women. This is 3 to 5 times larger than the gender gap in the general population. It is also 2 to 3 times larger than the gender gap among either the 18-25 or college-educated general population. The campus gender gap has grown steadily since 2004.
  • The university with the highest viewpoint diversity ranking is the University of Arkansas, whose students are 35% conservative, 37% liberal, 36% Republican, and 41% Democratic. The least diverse is Smith College, at 81% liberal, 1% conservative, 78% Democratic, and 2% Republican.
  • Thirty percent of students and nearly the same share of academic staff in Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) fields identify as the furthest left point on a 7-point conservative-liberal scale. For Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects, a smaller share – 20% of students and 10% of staff – identify as far left.
  • Self-identified Jews make up only 3% of elite students and just 7% of Ivy League students, suggesting a considerable decline since the early 2000s.
  • Homeschooled and parochial schooled undergraduates are as or more likely to identify as LGBT or non-binary as those from public or private school backgrounds.

Note: An interactive version of the table in the appendix that allows users to search by University and sort by characteristic can be found at

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The most elite fifth of undergraduates in the country will supply most of the nation’s future leaders. They are also an important leading indicator of emerging social and political trends. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)’s campus expression surveys sampled 57,000 undergraduates across 159 of the top universities in the country, allowing for an unprecedented opportunity to learn more about this important group.


Categories: Demographics, Education

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