Beyond the Divide

State Policies Are Factoring Into Enrollment Decisions

Just as voters might choose to live in states that align with their political beliefs to enhance their sense of belonging, students are increasingly considering the political climate in the home state of their potential alma mater when deciding where to attend college.

Organizations like Gallup, Lumina Foundation, and the consulting firm Art & Science Group have surveyed current and prospective students about the issues most important to them as they apply to, and then consider acceptances from, colleges and universities.

These groups found that students are closely monitoring several politicized policies when considering where to attend college, including those related to guns on campus, state legislation surrounding reproductive health, and curriculum restrictions, as well as a state’s perceived concern about racial equality and the availability of mental health care.

The Art & Science Group, publishers of “Politics, Policies, and Student Perspective – The Impact of State Social Policies on College Choice,” noted that in their national winter survey, aptly named studentPOLL, they found “a substantial fraction of high school seniors bound for four-year colleges as full-time students reported passing over a school they had initially considered, based exclusively on state-level political considerations. This was true across the spectrum of political ideologies.”

The demographics of these considerations are not as polarized as the survey topics might imply, suggesting that the anti-DEI movement may be alienating students on both sides of the political divide.

The Issues

While anti-DEI legislation is overwhelmingly written and supported by Republican lawmakers, Gallup and Lumina Foundation’s report, “Policies and Laws: How They’re Impacting College Enrollment,” found that across the political spectrum, “By margins between 52 and 68 percentage points, current and prospective students say they would prefer to attend college in states that are less restrictive of reproductive healthcare, more restrictive of guns on campus and less restrictive of the topics that can be discussed on campus.”

Affecting higher education perhaps most directly was the Supreme Court’s June 2023 ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, which effectively reversed affirmative action and banned any consideration of race in college admissions.

According to Gallup and Lumina Foundation, almost the same number of people who think the court’s decision will influence whether they apply to college also believe it will affect which schools they consider applying to — despite the fact that most students go to colleges that accept more than three-quarters of their applicants and probably didn’t use race as a factor in admissions before the ruling.

Guns

Today’s prospective college students grew up practicing active shooter drills and watching breaking news on TV about incidents like the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They are acutely aware of, and concerned about, gun violence in schools.

As such, more than 67% of current and prospective students surveyed by Gallup and Lumina Foundation.— across gender, race, age, and political party affiliations — said their preference is for more restrictive campus gun regulations, as this issue ranked at least “somewhat important” to their decision-making process when choosing where to enroll.

Despite this, 12 states have enacted legislation that effectively forces colleges and universities to allow concealed firearms on campus. Of that dozen, five are among the top 10 on the 2023 Guns and Ammo magazine ranked list of most gun-friendly states. Of those, both Utah and Montana faced decreasing enrollment numbers in 2023.

Meanwhile, numerous incidents involving the accidental discharge of loaded firearms have been reported in the last decade that put students and faculty at risk, according to research by Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, which notes that college campuses are relatively safe environments when guns are not allowed.

Students want to feel safe on campus, and when it comes to their view on guns, that means fewer, not more. But the political trend in many states has increasingly leaned toward legislating in favor of firearms and allowing them to be concealed and carried on campus grounds.

Abortion

Among current and prospective students, 71% surveyed by Gallup and Lumina Foundation said they consider reproductive health care policies significant factors in their college enrollment decisions. This preference was particularly pronounced among women, Black and Hispanic individuals, and adults aged 25 or younger.

As with gun policies, the issue crossed the political divide; Democrat-, Independent-, and Republican-identifying survey respondents each expressed a statistically strong preference for states with less restrictive policies, which correlates with general national attitudes since the 2022 Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson rescinded the constitutional right to abortion.

The Pew Research Center reported this spring that approximately 63% of Americans support the right to an abortion in all or most circumstances, and students are clear that they prefer having the choice available to them while attending college.

But in the same counterproductive vein as the trends regarding guns, many states have enacted — or are attempting to enact — laws that ban or severely restrict abortions, including North Dakota, Missouri, and Florida, each of which saw student enrollment decline or stagnate in 2023. Again, the impact is being felt.

By legislating against the preferences of potential students, these states, and others who tighten reproductive health care safety nets, risk alienating incoming classes at a time when they need to be ensuring high enrollment numbers.

Curriculum

Approximately 75% of current and prospective students surveyed by Gallup and Lumina Foundation reported that state policies regulating classroom discussions on race, gender, and other “divisive topics” have at least some significance in their enrollment considerations, with a notable majority expressing a preference for institutions exempt from such constraints.

These “divisive topics” are not open to interpretation. They were spelled out in Executive Order 13950, which former President Donald Trump signed into law during his term, and are not limited to racially charged concepts. This executive order has informed much of the public debate around “divisive topics,” both within and beyond higher education, since its publication in 2020.

Before now, there was only speculation about how these definitions and the resulting legislation would impact campus operations. As Gallup and Lumina Foundation explain, limitations on “divisive concepts” are unfavorable in most student enrollment decisions, which is more bad news for institutions pursuing increased enrollment.

The correlation between those states most successful in mirroring this philosophy and those seeing the biggest drop in enrollment seems to further evidence of the adverse effects of these policies.

In one example, Utah saw a 6.9% plummet in overall enrollment between 2021 and 2023 — the second biggest decline across all states — which directly coincides with Republican Spencer Cox’s term as the state’s governor. Cox has been pushing DEI restrictions since he took office and signed a bill prohibiting diversity training at state universities and in state government.

Undergraduate enrollment in Missouri dropped 4% between 2021 and 2023, which also aligns with the state legislature’s efforts to decrease campus diversity practices.

Looking Forward

While considerations such as cost, proximity, and educational quality hold sway for many, Gallup and Lumina Foundation’s survey results reveal the significant role of state-level policies in college-bound students’ decisions; for most current and prospective students surveyed, issues like gun legislation, reproductive health care, and curriculum restrictions carry meaningful weight in their selections.

This underscores a broader pattern. Movements opposing diversity, equity, and inclusion risk isolating students across the political spectrum. It is clear that institutions seeking to actively recruit students and stabilize or increase enrollment must recognize that they care about these issues and consider their part in shaping the slope of the enrollment cliff.

As the enrollment cliff looms across higher education and political spheres, it is critical that decision-making bodies and higher education leaders come together to create policies and legislation that will attract as wide a net of students to their state schools as possible.