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2021 3 year general CES
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2021 3-Year Campus Expression Survey Report

In recent years, concern over the state of free speech and open inquiry on college campuses has been
increasing. As part of their college experience, students should learn to think critically about important, and sometimes controversial, topics. For this to happen, campuses must welcome and encourage respectful discussion and debate. However, more and more frequently, students and faculty report being silence — and even feeling threatened — after expressing their perspectives on controversial topics. When censorship and cancellation replace open inquiry and constructive disagreement, the quality of education and research in institutions of higher learning is at stake.

In 2018, Heterodox Academy (HxA) created the Campus Expression Survey (CES) to empirically examine how often and why college students censor their opinions when discussing controversial topics. HxA has administered this survey to more than 1,300 U.S. undergraduate students each of the past three years (i.e., 2019, 2020, and 2021).

In this report, we have combined all three years of data (total N = 4,310) to examine how campus climate has changed and/or stayed the same from 2019 until 2021. We focus on variables for which there is data across all three years. Given the widespread impact of the pandemic, we also discuss student responses on COVID-19 questions from fall 2020 and fall 2021.


Executive Summary of Findings

  1. From 2019 to 2021, there were noticeable demographic changes to the composition of college
    students, including a marked increase in the proportion of students identifying as non binary (0.2% in 2020 to 5.0% in 2021) and transgender (1.4% in 2020 to 4.3% in 2021).
  2. Students' reluctance to discuss gender, politics, race, religion, and sexual orientation was
    consistently high and increased slightly from 2019 to 2021.
  3. The percentage of students who believe the climate on their campus prevents some people from
    saying things they believe increased from 54.7% in 2019 to 63.5% in 2021. 
  4. Students overwhelmingly — and increasingly — agreed with statements supporting the value of open inquiry and free expression in colleges. For instance, 85.4% of students in 2020, and 87.4% of students in 2021, agreed that colleges should welcome students and professors with many different points of view. 
  5. Political party played the largest role in whether students were reluctant to discuss controversial topics. Democrat students were least reluctant to discuss politics, race, gender, and sexual orientation, while Libertarian and Republican students were most reluctant.
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