Polls imply campus is not apolitical, prioritizes education

Credit: Barbara Samaniego/ Credit: Barbara Samaniego/

Are we, as a student body, veritably apolitical?

Polling indicates that the answer to this question is no. We are not apolitical, nor can we afford to be so.

Why do we view ourselves this way?

This week, I conducted a poll to compare the political opinions of Carnegie Mellon students with those of fellow American voters. I conducted this poll in person, surveying random individuals in various high traffic locations on campus. For this poll, I asked a series of specific questions concerning both domestic and foreign policy, and I found that students generally shied away from harder, more specific questions, but eagerly answered general questions. This may be due in part to the binary nature of poll answers; many students said that they could not answer the questions with a simple “yes or no.” For example, one student hesitated to answer a question about restrictions on border control, and I asked if she would like to answer with “No Opinion.” She responded, “I don’t have no opinion, [my answer] is not binary. It’s a problem and it’s complex and there is no one simple answer.”

Others reacted similarly to the poll questions, saying that it is hard to answer such questions with simple, one word responses. Another student noted that poll questions are flawed because most answers are not simply black or white.

Yet, many students did not want to answers questions because they either did not know or did not want to offend anyone by deviating from what others would answer. Many asked me several times to confirm that the poll was anonymous before they gave their opinions.

The two questions that received the largest number of viable responses concerned whether or not students considered themselves politically involved and what issue they felt was most important.

Before I compare this data to the national poll, I want to note one, interesting detail.

Prior to conducting this poll, I created a Facebook event and posted the questions on the event page to gauge interest. Through Facebook, the responses are not anonymous and respondents could see how other students answered similar questions before they selected an answer. The results differed significantly from those I gathered from the formal poll.

On Facebook, many students chose the same answers as their peers, and many more shied away from selecting an answer in the first place. Notably, those students with more conservative political views told me that they did not wish to answer a public poll for fear of backlash from fellow students.

In general, Carnegie Mellon students tend to hold the same political opinions as fellow millennials, and actually express more interest in politics than average. According to most news sources, millennials exhibit much less interest in politics than other generations, yet 68 percent of Carnegie Mellon respondents considered themselves politically involved. Only 35 percent of millennials reported discussing politics at least a few times a week according to the Pew Research Center.

Like fellow millennials, Carnegie Mellon students tend to prioritize education as the pressing domestic policy issue of our time. Conversely, most American voters believe that healthcare reform is the most important domestic policy issue to focus on. Only 27 percent of Carnegie Mellon students named healthcare as the most important domestic policy issue, compared to 39 percent of Americans.
Millennials, and especially Carnegie Mellon students, are personally affected by policy issues surrounding education. Student debt has become a major problem for the United States, accounting for over a trillion dollars of debt and growing by $2,726 every second. Moreover, the cost of colleges has skyrocketed in recent years, while a college degree becomes more and more necessary in the job market.

Not surprisingly, those recently affected by this debt prioritize a reform in education, but the need for education reform exceeds the exorbitant debt. American schools are largely underfunded and lag far behind the rest of the world for their quality. The Program for International Student Assessment placed the U.S. 35th out of 64 countries in math and 27th in science.

Carnegie Mellon students realize this and more. They generally hold strong political opinions and seem to follow current events. But why then is Carnegie Mellon considered so apolitical and apathetic?

In part, politics are not on the forefront of student’s concerns. Students are generally more concerned with academics, and Carnegie Mellon itself emphasizes academic achievement and success over everything else. In general, there are very few opportunities for students to debate and engage in political conversations, and even fewer opportunities to learn more about current events in academic settings.

As I mentioned earlier, many also fear voicing their opinions in case they differ from or offend their peers. Students seem to fear engaging in debate, perhaps because they doubt their own knowledge and fear being wrong.

Carnegie Mellon students have the knowledge and potential to be political; they can offer so much to the political world. Today, our generation cannot afford to be apolitical; millennials are currently the largest generation in our country, yet they have the smallest voter turnout overall. Millennials have the power to change the course of the election and vote for those policies that affect them now and will affect them for years to come.

Carnegie Mellon students: don’t take pride in remaining apolitical, but take pride in knowing you have the knowledge and influence to change the course of American politics. Otherwise, you let those far older than you decide the outcome of your future.