Each year, Heterodox Academy (HxA) researchers survey America’s college students to assess their perceptions of the expression climate. Developed by HxA in 2017 and piloted in 2018, the Campus Expression Survey (CES) asks students: “Who is afraid to speak up about which issues and why?”

The annual survey measures the extent to which college students feel comfortable or reluctant discussing various topics on their campuses. In the latest CES research, administered between September and November 2021, HxA surveyed 1,495 full-time college students (ages 18 to 24) across the United States. The sample was stratified by region, race, and gender based on proportions reported by the National Center for Educational Statistics and previous Gallup-Knight data collections to produce a nationally representative sample.

Students were asked how comfortable or reluctant they were to speak their views in the classroom on five controversial topics — politics, race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender — as well the COVID-19 pandemic. Students also reported their comfort or reluctance to speak their views about non-controversial topics for comparison.

Overall, 60% of college students surveyed expressed reluctance to discuss at least one controversial topic. Students who reported having low interaction quality with classmates (i.e., not much opportunity to get to know other students) also reported higher reluctance to discuss all five of the core controversial topics. This finding suggests that professors may facilitate more robust classroom conversations if they help students get to know one another.

Students’ political party and race/ethnicity seem to play a role in how reluctant students are to discuss a number of controversial topics, with Republican and Independent students and white and Asian students being most reluctant.

Why are some students reluctant? Feared consequences from other students. However, most students reported that they would not publicly criticize those whose opinions differed from their own. In fact, 64% of students reported that they would ask genuine questions to better understand others’ opinions. This finding may aid professors in establishing a classroom climate that encourages constructive disagreement and viewpoint diversity. Most students are open to learning from different opinions.

“The contents of this year’s CES report will provide readers with recent data and information around campus expression,” said John Tomasi, president of Heterodox Academy. “There are many opinion-based news articles regarding the state of expression in the classroom; HxA’s CES report can equip these conversations with the facts and figures from a representative sample of American college students.”

The detailed report can be found here.

Heterodox Academy is a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to improve the quality of research and education by promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning. Our community is made up of more than 5,000 professors, educators, administrators, and students who come from a range of institutions.

Mckenzie Love
Director of Communications, Heterodox Academy