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 LEFT VS. RIGHT: Liberal freshmen outnumber conservatives at Berkeley by more than 4 to 1, but that doesn't mean that student groups like the Int'l Socialist Organization don't coexist peacefully with the College Republicans. (Steve McConnell photo)

Berkeley freshmen are more liberal and less religious than their national counterparts - but survey finds their views are closer than labels suggest

UNDERREPRESENTED MINORITY: Who says conservatives don't have a sense of humor? (Jonathan King photo)
– Should abortion remain legal? Did going to war in Iraq make America a safer place? Do same-sex couples have the right to legal marital status?

Yes, no, and yes, said a substantial majority of respondents on the Fall 2004 Survey of Berkeley Freshmen. Perhaps this does not surprise you. However, consider some of the survey's other findings: just 51.2% of first-year respondents think of themselves as liberal. More than a third (36.8%) deem their political views "middle of the road," while 12% are proud to claim membership in that elusive (but vocal) species, the Berkeley conservative.

That's because Berkeley's been moving steadily mainstream ever since the Age of Aquarius and Vietnam War-era campus radicalism, right? Wrong, according to the Office of Student Research (OSR), which has administered this survey for several decades.

In fact, students today are a lot more liberal than they were during the 1980s. Back in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was president and it was eternally "Morning in America," Berkeley conservatives had a respectable market share of 20.8% of freshmen, compared with 32.9% for liberals. And almost a majority, 46.4%, of 1982 Berkeley first-year students lounged comfortably between the left and right political lanes. The pendulum has since swung leftward, and 2004 freshmen are only slightly less liberal than they were in 1972, when 56.5% of freshmen called themselves liberals; the number of conservatives was also in the same ballpark, 10.5%.

Gender blender

OSR Director Gregg Thomson was intrigued enough by this arc to run some additional analyses of past survey data, including averages from a national survey of freshmen at four-year universities (note). 1982 was the closest Berkeley has come to mirroring the political makeup of the average group of university freshmen: 19.4% of freshmen nationally that year called themselves conservative (versus 20.8% nationally). In 2004, although liberals also outnumbered conservatives among college freshmen nationwide, it was by a slim margin, with a solid majority calling themselves middle of the road. (See Figure 1.)

Casual sects
Berkeley freshmen were almost evenly divided, with 53.1% agreeing, on the statement that "If two people really like each other, it's all right for them to have sex even if they've known each other for only a very short time.

That a Berkeley freshman tends to be more liberal than the average freshman is again not surprising. What is interesting is that somehow Berkeley's leftward view has remained fairly constant, even as the ethnic makeup of the university's freshman class has changed markedly since 1972. The percentage of Asian and underrepresented minority freshmen has gone from 16.3% and 5.3% in 1972, respectively, to 45.1% and 13% in 2004. (See Figure 2.) Asian students of both genders were more likely to choose "middle of the road" to describe their political views, while underrepresented minority students are the least likely to: 43.8% of Asian freshmen declared themselves neutral, compared with 36.4% of non-Asian minority students. (See Figure 3.)

Berkeley's white students are the most liberal ethnic group, at 59.9%. That is, white female students. White women were the most liberal group of all freshmen at Berkeley, at 65.9%; only 52.4% of white male freshmen were liberal. Mirroring the makeup of the Republican party and conservative freshmen nationwide, Berkeley conservatives are not only more likely to be male, they're more likely to be white males. In 2004, 18.8% of white male freshmen at Berkeley were conservative, compared with 7.8% of freshmen men from underrepresented minority groups. The political differences between genders were imperceptible among underrepresented minorities and less pronounced for Asian freshmen.

The liberal female-conservative male dynamic has not always existed at Berkeley. Back in 1972, male liberals outnumbered female liberals by 1.2%. But by 1990, significantly more women (9.8% more) held liberal political views than did men. (See Figure 4.)

Guns, gays and stay-at-home moms

What does it mean to be liberal or conservative at Berkeley? Is it possible that "middle of the road" on this campus is still west of the rest of the country? Although the 2004 Survey of Berkeley Freshmen provided no definition of "liberal" or "conservative" that students could use to classify their views, more insight can be gained by comparing their answers to a set of statements about social, moral, and political issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage with those of other U.S. freshmen.

Berkeley freshmen on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized

 Dennis Cheng 'I don't have strong feelings either way.  It doesn't matter. I'd vote to legalize it, I guess. Other  people's personal relationships are not my business.'
Dennis Cheng, first-year  undeclared, from Hacienda Heights, CA

 Robert Lawson'I think it should be legalized because I don't think there's any basis for differentiating between genders with regard to civil marriage. I'm very liberal, and I'm not religious - so I think as far as the law is concerned, religion shouldn't play any part.'
Robert Lawson, first-year Cognitive Science/Film Studies major, from Silver Springs, MD.

Daniel Torres'I'm against it because I am religious, and it's part of my beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman. At the same time, it's their free choice, I can't stop them, but it's my belief that the institution of marriage should not be changed to allow gay marriage.'
Daniel Torres, first-year Physics major, from Madeira, CA.

Students were interviewed in Feb. 2004

Given that Berkeley freshmen are twice as likely to call themselves liberal, one would imagine a huge difference in attitudes on hot-button social issues. The gap is indeed there, but not as wide as might be expected for most topics, with the biggest divide coming not on same-sex marriage, but on raising taxes for the wealthy and abolishing capital punishment.

Respondents were directed to indicate whether they agreed strongly, agreed somewhat, disagreed somewhat, or disagreed strongly with the statements. For the convenience of this article, these four responses have been simplified into "agreed" or "disagreed." Berkeley freshmen formed a strong consensus on five topics, with 85% or more students coming to the same conclusion whether to agree or disagree:

  • "The federal government should do more to control the sale of handguns," agreed 88.3% of Berkeley freshmen; 76.5% of U.S. freshmen thought so in 2003 (note).
  • 87.9% disagreed with the assumption that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in America, compared with 77.6% nationally.
  • 86.1% disagreed that "Going to war in Iraq has made America a safer place" (not asked on the national survey).
  • 86% disagreed that "the activities of married women are best confined to the home and family," compared with 78.3% of all U.S. respondents.
  • 85.3% disagreed with the assertion that "it is important to have laws prohibiting homosexual relationships," compared with 73.9% disagreeing nationally.

Another six statements were also no-brainers for Berkeley freshmen, garnering consensus in the 70%-plus range:

  • 78.7% of Berkeley freshmen agreed with the statement that "Abortion should be legal." Nationally, only 54.5% of U.S. freshmen agreed.
  • "Same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status," agreed 76.7% of Berkeley students; nationally, only 59.4% of U.S. freshmen would grant marital status to same-sex couples.
  • Berkeley freshmen are slightly more idealistic than their counterparts nationwide: 75.9% disagreed with the assertion that "Realistically, an individual can do little to bring about changes in our society," compared with 71.9% of all U.S. students.
  • "The federal government's war on terrorism has unnecessarily compromised our civil liberties in this country," agreed 73.9% of Berkeley freshmen (not asked on national survey).
  • 70.2 percent disagreed that colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers. Interestingly, given Berkeley's history as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, a relatively large group - 23.8% - agreed "somewhat" that such speakers (such as last fall's controversial visitor Michelle Malkin) should be turned away (not asked on national survey).
  • Somewhat surprisingly given the few Berkeley students who identified themselves as "far left," 72.3% agreed with the statement "Wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do now." Only 53.1% of all U.S. freshmen thought so in 2003.

Berkeley freshmen were more divided on the remainder of the questions.

  • On the statement "The death penalty should be abolished," 50.6% agreed, and the remainder supported the status quo. That is considerably more liberal than the national average: only 32.6% of U.S. freshmen polled in 2003 would have retired capital punishment.
  • And "Sex in the City" notwithstanding, students today are divided over the morality of casual hookups. In response to the statement "If two people really like each other, it's all right for them to have sex even if they've known each other for only a very short time," 53.1% Berkeley freshmen said they agreed. But roughly as many agreed strongly as disagreed strongly, 19.6% vs. 21.2%, and those who "agreed somewhat" only slightly trumped the "disagree somewhat" crowd, 33.5% vs. 25.8%. (This question did not appear on the national survey.)
  • Again, so much for the Free Speech Movement's legacy: a slight majority, 54.8%, believed "Colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus"; only slightly more freshmen nationwide, 58.4%, agreed with that statement.
  • 55% disagreed that "There is too much concern in the courts for the rights of criminals," compared with the 38.9% nationally who agreed with that statement.
  • While 55.8% of Berkeley freshmen disagreed that marijuana should be legalized, 23.7% strongly opposed legalization, compared with the 12.9% who would push for it. Nationally, 61.2% disagreed.
  • 57.3% agreed that "Affirmative action in college admissions should be abolished," even more than thought so nationwide, where at a 52.8% agreement rate, the margin was slimmer.

Born again, born abroad

OSR's 2004 Survey of Berkeley Freshmen measured a lot more than their political views. For the first time in its history, the survey was given to freshmen mid-semester, rather than at the start of the year, allowing detailed questions about their actual - rather than anticipated - Berkeley experience to be included. These responses provide invaluable data for administrators.

Berkeley freshmen on the role religion plays in their lives

 Jennifer Tillett 'Christianity is pretty important to me. I grew up in a Christian household, and it's shaped my morals, how I think about things. I consider it a guide for how to live my life, not a strict doctrine that I have to follow.'
-Jennifer Tillett, first-year applied mathematics (intended) major. Hometown: Los Angeles, CA

 Lucy Allen'Religion has never played a role in my life. I didn't grow up in a religious household and I have never felt the need for it.'
Lucy Allen, first-year student (major undeclared). Hometown: Arcata, CA.

 Loan Pham'I'm not religious, but I still believe in the ideas and philosophy of Buddhism. I want to have spiritual peace of mind. Buddhism helps me remember to take one thing at a time, and find calmness.'
Loan Pham, first-year student (major undeclared). Hometown: Sacramento, CA.

Students were interviewed in Nov. 2004

The survey also paints a novel picture of the typical Berkeley freshmen from a variety of perspectives. Those who have noticed the number of student religious groups holding court at Sproul Plaza tables might nod their heads when they hear that 266 of the 2,315 freshmen respondents said they considered themselves born-again Christians. On the other hand, close to half (43.8%) answered "none" when asked to state their religious preference on a different question. Nationally, only 17.6% of U.S. freshmen chose the same answer. Out of a list of 39 religions, Berkeley students most commonly identified themselves as Roman Catholic (14%), Jewish (5.2%) Presbyterian (4.4%) and Other Christian (3.0%).

Demographically, first-generation Americans continue to make up the bulk of the student body. Although 74.8% of Berkeley freshmen were born in the United States, both parents of 58.1% were born outside the U.S.; an additional 8.4% had one parent born elsewhere. Nationally, only 13.4% of university freshmen had two foreign-born parents. The parents of 77.1% of Berkeley freshmen were both alive and living with each other, slightly more than the national average. Only 19.5% were divorced or living apart.

The hunger for advanced degrees goes hand in hand with the number of high achievers and first-generation American students at Berkeley. Or perhaps they just like being in school - a lot. Only 15% of Berkeley freshmen intend to cease their education with their bachelor's degrees, 22.5% think they'll stop after their master's, while another 21.2% aim for a Ph.D.; the rest are looking at medical, business, and law postgraduate degrees.

Not surprisingly, the most popular career choices were doctor, lawyer/judge, business exec/CEO, engineer, and architect. It's worth noting, however, that 27 students of the 2,315 Berkeley respondents intend to go into politics, 4 want to be astronauts, 4 want to be chefs, and 2 students intend to be a "mom (child rearing)."

Family planning

Asked to rate how important an array of different goals was to them personally, the biggest group of 2004 Berkeley freshmen chose "raising a family" as essential or very important, 70.9%. That's just a few percentage points less than the 2003 national average: 74.8% of all U.S. freshmen felt similarly about raising a family. Other popular goals among both Berkeley freshmen and their national counterparts were "being very well off financially," which 67.8% of Berkeley freshmen considered very important or essential; 73.8% of all freshmen did. Lest you think Berkeley students are greedy, a slightly bigger group (68.8%) considered "helping others who are in difficulty" essential or very important, compared with only 63.7% nationally.

Of the least significance to Berkeley freshmen were creating artistic work, writing original works, or "becoming accomplished in one of the performing arts" - more than half said not one of those three goals was important to them at all. Perhaps that's because 68.8% admitted to being "very concerned" about being able to maintain a high enough GPA - the subject that inspired the biggest anxiety out of all the questions. Second was "being overwhelmed with all the things I'm expected to do my first semester," which 38.1% said they were very worried about.

In contrast, 62.5% were "not that concerned" about getting along with their roommates - only 10.7% were "very concerned." More than half of respondents, or 55.4%, felt they were adjusting to life at Berkeley just fine, thank you, and were not that concerned about homesickness or being away from family and friends; just 13.1% were very concerned.

UCLA was apparently Berkeley's biggest rival for the freshmen who eventually enrolled here, with 26.7% indicating it had been their second choice college. Asked "how difficult was it to choose Berkeley," 42.5% answered "Not at all difficult," while another 35.4% said the decision had been "somewhat difficult."

Most tellingly, halfway through the semester, the majority of students felt they were fitting in just fine: 59.2% said they were not concerned whether Berkeley had been the right choice for them.

More information

Note regarding national survey data: These and similar sociopolitical statements have been posed to more than 11 million students at 1,800 institutions over the years through the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) survey, now administered by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). Berkeley's Office of Student Research ended its participation in the CIRP survey in 1990 in order to collect its own data cheaper and faster. However, for Berkeley's 2004 survey, the OSR received permission from HERI to include the exact language of the 14 statements; it added two of its own about the war in Iraq and civil liberties. Because the CIRP survey is a paper questionnaire sent to thousands of respondents, 2004 figures will not be available from HERI until later this year. Because historically, answers tend to shift only incrementally from year to year, this article uses the 2003 CIRP responses from more than 275,000 freshmen at U.S. baccalaureate-offering universities for comparison purposes with the 2004 Berkeley data.

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