Undergraduate Political Attitudes: Peer Influence in Changing Social Contexts

Article excerpt

Students are influenced in a number of ways by the colleges and universities they attend. Many of these influences, of course, are intentional and planned. Higher education institutions and their faculties, for example, develop formal academic programs that are designed to promote student learning and development in specific areas (Stark & Lattuca, 1997). In contrast, other outcomes, even those that may be tied to an institution's mission, can be produced by unstructured and informal experiences of students. Student attitudes and values are examples of such outcomes, and an abundance of research evidence shows that student attitudes and values are influenced during college (Astin, 1993; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Most colleges and universities, however, make little formal effort to shape student values, in spite of general agreement about the need for higher education to do so (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). But if colleges and universities do not typically organize themselves to shape attitudes and values, how are outcomes in this area produced?

Socialization is the most commonly offered explanation for the influence of college on student attitudes and values. Socialization is the process through which individuals acquire knowledge, habits, and value orientations that will be useful in the future (Brim, 1966). In effect, the socialization perspective suggests that students balance their own predispositions and goals with normative pressures generated by various groups in changing and maintaining their attitudes, values, and beliefs (Weidman, 1989). This involves organizational, interpersonal, and intrapersonal processes that occur in both formal and informal settings (LeVine, 1966; Weidman, 1989; Weil, 1985).

A number of factors make it important to understand how socialization processes influence student attitudes. From the perspective of practice, higher education is increasingly being held accountable for the outcomes it produces, even if these outcomes occur completely independently of any formal institutional action. From a research perspective, this is also an important issue to understand because of the tight interconnections between individual change and social change, a reality that presents researchers with a multitude of methodological and theoretical challenges (Alwin, Cohen, & Newcomb, 1991; Astin, 1993; Gurin, 1971; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Linkages among individuals, social institutions, and general social forces make the unique identification of causes and effects problematic. Moreover, interpretational challenges are created by disciplinary boundaries that have led to the observation that "theories about social change generally ignore processes of individual change, and theories of human development and change tend to ignore issues of social change" (Alwin & Krosnick, 1991, p. 170).

Set within this context, the central goal of this study is to examine the changing impact of college on student attitudes and values using a socialization framework. By examining college influences across different time periods, I hope to illuminate the interconnections between college effects and those that are related to general social trends. I use the model of undergraduate socialization provided by Weidman (1989) as a heuristic framework for studying how the normative contexts of college campuses, students' interactions with peers, and changes in the larger social context serve to influence the attitudes of students, net of precollege and college characteristics.

Liberalism, College Impact, and Social Change

To address the general problem of socialization processes I examine the specific case of the development of political orientations among undergraduate students. Defining student political orientations in terms of liberalism and conservatism has been a challenge noted since the earliest research on college impact. For example, in his early report on data collected from Bennington college students Newcomb (1943) noted a great variability in the way the term conservative was defined in the existing research literature. …