College students more politically engaged, at MU and across nation

As the nation gears up for the upcoming presidential and congressional elections, more college students around the nation are walking and talking politics on campuses, including at Marquette.

According to numbers from Marquette’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, the number of freshman students enrolling as political science majors has increased steadily since 2007. The number has increased by approximately 73 percent, from 132 students in 2007 to 228 students in 2012.

While Marquette has seen an increase in overall enrollment over the years, not every major reflects the same increased interest as political science. The number of English majors, for example, has declined since 2008, and the number of economics majors has remained steady.

A study released by UCLA in 2009 reflected this trend toward more political science students and reported an increased interest in politics among college freshman all over the country.

The study, conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, reported that students are becoming more politically aware now than at any time in the past 40 years. The survey states: “The portion of incoming freshmen who frequently discussed politics in [2009] — 35.6 percent — surpasses the 33.6 percent level recorded in 1968, itself a 40-year high mark of student political engagement.”

John McAdams, an associate professor of political science at Marquette, said that increased interest in politics among college students may be because of increased polarization in the political sphere.

“I would speculate that it’s because we live in a rather polarized political era,” McAdams said.  “People sometimes think that ‘polarization’ is bad, but polarization is politicizing.”

McAdams added that the political drama surrounding Scott Walker and other national candidates also motivates people to learn about politics.

“When politicians, whether it be Obama or Scott Walker, do something that people don’t like, that’s politicizing. People become politically engaged,” McAdams said.

Thomas Schick, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences and a political science major, said he thought his major seemed to be very popular among his classmates.

“Many of my friends see it as a logical stepping stone towards law school with its focus on the law in the political system,” Schick said. “But I also have other friends who see political science as a major with broad applications to many fields. I have a close friend who chose to double major in political science and elementary education.”

Schick added that advances in the way political outlets use social media, which is aimed at college students, may contribute to heightened political exposure among college students.

Zack Henderson, also a sophomore and political science major, said certain issues appeal more to college students than others.

“The more substantive economic or fiscal issues are harder to understand, generally less black-and-white, and many students — and I’m guilty of this at times, too — simply do not invest the time to learn about and form positions on them,” Henderson said.

Henderson added that any increase in political participation, no matter how small, is encouraging.

“I think it’s promising that our numbers keep climbing,” he said. “I’m more hopeful for our nation and its success knowing that more students are wishing to be politically engaged.”