Loeb House

Have Harvard Students Become More Progressive? I Used Data To Find Out.

By Julien Berman, Crimson Opinion Writer

Julien Berman ’26, an Associate Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Adams House.

From congressional subpoenas to doxxing trucks to plagiarism scandals, Harvard has spent the year on trial in the courts of public opinion. Its crime? Becoming more progressive.

Of course, it’s not the first time that Harvard has seen such turmoil, and liberal student activism is nothing new either. Students have often been on the leading edge of progressivism, protesting everything from the Vietnam War to South African apartheid to Operation Desert Storm to the death of George Floyd.

But are college students today actually more progressive than they were in the past?

Just looking at election outcomes, it appears so. College students have become more reliable Democratic voters. In 2008, former U.S. President Barack Obama won approximately two-thirds of the youth vote. Similarly, the youth vote helped U.S. President Joe Biden defeat former President Donald J. Trump in 2020.

Vote choice, though, doesn’t tell us what young people believe. In order to test how much the substance of college students’ views have changed, I collected opinion pieces from 322 student newspapers across the country published from 2000 to today. Then, I ran these articles through a sentiment analysis algorithm, which uses ChatGPT prompts to evaluate the political lean of each article.

Guess what? Students — at least, those who write opinion articles for college papers — have, in fact, become more progressive along almost every possible axis.

Students Are Getting More Progressive

Here’s the gist of my methodology for this analysis:

I pulled more than 60,000 opinion articles from both The Crimson’s online archives and University Wire, a library of student opinion pieces. Then, I used the Generalized Attribute Based Ratings Information Extraction Library (developed by my friends Elliott P. Mokski ’24 and Hemanth O. Asirvatham ’24) to make ChatGPT rate text on several attributes — support for social justice, activism, racial diversity, and so on — that each represent an aspect of progressiveness. Finally, I used an algorithm to aggregate these attributes into an overall progressiveness score ranging from negative one (most conservative) to one (most progressive).

For context, my approach deemed these articles progressive and deemed these articles conservative.

In 2000 — when my analysis begins — the average college newspaper article leaned somewhat progressive (0.22), and the opinions of student writers at elite universities (0.26) weren’t all that more progressive than those at non-elite ones (0.23).

Two decades later, the average student opinion piece has only become a touch more progressive (0.26), but there’s been a divergence: Opinion sections at elite universities have gotten significantly more progressive, and they’ve outrun their their non-elite counterparts (0.35 for elite universities versus 0.28 for non-elite ones).

A graph displaying results for college newspapers nationwide.

What explains the shift? The greatest increases occurred between 2010 and 2015, during which time two national trends could have driven college students to become more progressive.

First, Obama’s election may have made all Americans more progressive, including college students.

During Obama’s tenure, the percentage of Americans identifying as “liberal” on social issues increased significantly, growing from a quarter in 2009 to nearly a third by the end of 2016. For example, the nation went from opposing to supporting both a right to same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana — in each case, a change of more than 15 points.

Second, the Occupy movement on the left and the rise of the Tea Party on the right accelerated an ongoing trend of political polarization. As the left and the right moved farther apart, the space for moderate and centrist voices shrank, and these developments intensified as each side reacted to the other’s advances.

For instance, the Tea Party’s success in the 2010 midterm elections, which brought a flood of conservative politicians into Congress, likely spurred further leftward shifts among progressives, as seen in the enthusiastic support for Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the 2016 Democratic primary.

The divergence between elite and non-elite universities, however, didn’t begin during the Obama years. It started at the height of Trump’s campaign for office.

To build some intuition for what’s driven this split, I took a look within The Crimson’s own pages. Unlike student newspapers more generally, the publication’s opinion section has moved substantially leftward over time. It was over three times more progressive in 2023 than it was in 2001 (0.36 versus 0.10).

(Importantly, the progressiveness scores for The Crimson are derived from comparing articles within its own archive rather than against articles from all universities, so the scores in the first graph shouldn’t be compared one-to-one with those in the second. Nevertheless, the point stands: The Crimson, compared to itself, has become much more progressive.)

A graph displaying results for The Crimson.

Almost all attributes contributed to the increase, including support for social justice, racial diversity, and activism — a change consistent with the oft-discussed rise of social progressivism on college campuses. However, the anticapitalism attribute has remained relatively flat, indicating that progressivism in our pages has concerned social, rather than economic, issues.

Interestingly, though, the trend for elite college papers as a whole differs from that of The Crimson. Whereas our opinion section became gradually more progressive over time, elite college paper opinion sections as a whole did not diverge from non-elite ones until 2015, which was the height of the Trump campaign and the year that the culture wars came to define American politics.

The overall leftward turn seems to operate on two separate axes. Not only are there more opinion articles that discuss progressive social justice issues, but the opinions themselves have also become more progressive on average.

I believe two mechanisms likely produce the Trump effect.

First, Trump spearheaded an anti-elite movement that marshaled populist sentiment against so-called “coastal elites.” As a result, students attending elite universities may now feel less welcome in the Republican party.

Second, political elites may have become more progressive than the average likely voter. These elites, who constitute a significant portion of the students who attend elite institutions, might then push the student body of elite universities even further left.

Finally, the progressive shift appears to have peaked in 2020 and 2021, coinciding with the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Where This Leaves Us

College students embracing more progressive views could have far-reaching impacts, both on universities and in American society as a whole.

For universities, a self-perpetuating cycle could form. If more liberal students attend a given university, those students may demand more courses and professors that approach the world from an increasingly progressive perspective, which might put pressure on the university to offer more courses or hire more faculty members to meet student demand.

Meanwhile, American culture and politics will feel the effects, too. As with gay marriage, abortion, or marijuana use, ideas that were once considered radical will become increasingly mainstream as today’s young people become a significant portion of the electorate.

But as campuses grow more progressive, conservatives may intensify their recent attacks on higher education. And as we’ve seen, external pressure — from donors especially — can have real effects on university policy.

The opinions of young people today define the trajectory of America tomorrow. It’s essential we understand how the universities they attend shape — and are shaped by — students’ beliefs.

Crimson Technology Associates Vivian W. Hui ’27 and Alexander D. Cai ’25 contributed interactive graphs.

Crimson Designer Sami E. Turner ’25 contributed the cover graphic.