After 40 years of declining college student interest in political matters, political engagement and protests have returned to campus. A so-called “Million Student March” was held on over 100 campuses around the country this past week, and other colleges experienced protests in support of the unrest at the University of Missouri. As Bob Dylan, who provided the soundtrack for student protests of an earlier time, put it: “The times they are a-changin’.”
But let’s be clear, these are not your father’s student protests from the 1960s. Today’s students are not protesting wars and American foreign policy, but rather perceived slights and injustices in their college experience. In other words, the students are stirred up about their own lives and campus climates. The “Million Student March” was about demands for free college tuition and the cancellation of student debt. (Thank you Bernie Sanders for creating those pie in the sky expectations.) Colleges bear some responsibility for rising costs, but the increase in student debt is more about families shifting the burden of college forward to their children.
The protests about race are more complex. At one level, the very affirmative action programs designed to address racial imbalance on campuses are failing, with students feeling marginalized and unprepared. One demonstrator at Emory said, “They do not provide any type of resources for black students to thrive and succeed… They lump us in here and just expect us to swim.” Another common complaint is that there are simply not enough faculty and students of color on campus, resulting in a feeling of “alienation” among minority students. Doubtless there is truth in this, although lots of students apparently feel alienated these days. The annual survey of college freshman undertaken for decades by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute indicates that students’ feeling of good emotional health, self-reported at only 50%, is at an all-time low.