Campus & Community

Poll: College students like private account idea

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IOP poll shows Social Security concerns

A new national poll by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics (IOP), located at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, finds seven out of 10 of America’s college students are concerned Social Security will not pay out benefits when they retire, with students significantly more likely to support investment of Social Security taxes in private accounts than the general public. In addition, the poll showed college students at odds with the current administration on foreign policy issues, with only about one out of three in favor of the United States’ work to spread freedom and democracy across the world and nearly three out of four believing the United States should let the UN and other countries take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts.

The test is available online at for those who would like to determine how their views compare with those of America’s college students.

The poll also includes the second edition of the IOP’s innovative method for assessing the political ideology of America’s college students. The 11-question “Harvard Institute of Politics’ Political Personality Test” finds that America’s college students do not fit traditional ideological labels like “liberal” and “conservative,” instead revealing a sizeable population of independents. These religious and secular centrists incorporate religious views with their political attitudes and actions.

“Young people didn’t just ‘talk the talk’ on voting in 2004 – they ‘walked the walk,’ turning out in even greater numbers in the last election than seniors aged 65 and older,” said IOP Director Philip Sharp. “Our poll shows college students – a key voting constituency – have strong views on topical issues like Social Security and U.S. foreign policy. It is clearly in the interests of both political parties to take note and court young people aggressively.”

Findings of the survey of 1,206 college students, drawn randomly from a national database of nearly 5.1 million students include:

  • College students are concerned about Social Security’s future, and although conflicted over the best fix, they favor private accounts more so than the general public. Nearly 70 percent of college students are somewhat or very concerned Social Security will not pay out benefits when they retire. In an open-ended question asking what issue concerned college students the most, Social Security ranked second after war. Undergraduates (52 percent) are significantly more likely than other Americans (40 percent – NBC/Wall Street Journal 2/05) to support creation of private investment accounts. Fifty-two percent support changing Social Security to allow private investment, while nearly 38 percent would rather stay in the current system and risk a payout shortfall. Concerning the state of the current system and the federal government’s role in providing a fix, a slim majority (53 percent) favor Congress placing more emphasis on providing “guarantees,” over giving people “personal control.”
  • As opposition to the Iraq war hits a new high, college students are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with current U.S. foreign policy. Students seem to be at odds with major foreign policy goals of the current administration. For the first time, a majority of college students (53 percent) now oppose the U.S. having gone to war with Iraq, up six points from a year ago (47 percent), and only 36 percent agree that the United States should work to spread freedom and democracy across the world. Sixty-seven percent believe it will be at least 10 years before Iraq will be a fully functioning, free democracy – and 12 percent don’t think it will ever happen.
  • College students are concerned about the challenges facing their generation. Fifty-seven percent of college students today believe the United States will invade another country and 49 percent believe there will be another large-scale terrorist attack in the United States in the next five years. Skeptical about the outlook for Middle East stability, only 18 percent believe democracy in the Middle East will be achieved within the next five years.
  • They believe our nation has great responsibilities, and support a more multilateral U.S. foreign affairs stance. Nearly three out of four college students (74 percent) believe the United States should let other countries and the United Nations take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts. Sixty-four percent of students believe that it is important for the United States to be respected in the world, 61 percent believe the United States should be the largest contributor of humanitarian aid to other countries, and 65 percent feel the U.S. should commit troops in cases of genocide or ethnic cleansing to prevent such acts. Only 20 percent believe the United States should spread democracy if it involves significant taxpayer dollars, 13 percent if it involves significant U.S. casualties.

    Harvard students designed the poll, in consultation with Professor David King and pollster John Della Volpe, whose firm Schneiders/Della Volpe/Schulman conducted the survey and analyzed the data. Complete results and past surveys are available online at