In the fall of 2022, gun violence shattered the tranquility of my son’s college experience at the University of Virginia. In an urgent call, he said, “Mom, there’s an active shooter on campus. I think some people have died not too far from here. No one knows where the shooter is, so we’re all locked in our house.”

Until that terrifying moment—when a gunman killed three students and injured two others—my son pursued his studies without a second thought about campus safety. Suddenly, he and his classmates joined students across the nation who faced similar acts of violence to confront the harsh realities of gun safety. The importance of laws and policies in shaping their lives became painfully evident as they realized how legislation shapes everything from campus safety to free and open discussions. And they became acutely aware of the need to consider these factors when deciding on their academic journeys.

These truths are abundantly clear in our new Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education survey, which reveals that legislation on gun control, reproductive healthcare, curriculum restrictions, and inclusivity affect enrollment decisions for most current and prospective students. Here’s what we found:

  • Gun laws and regulations are among the most impactful policy factors, with 80 percent of students saying these are at least somewhat important in their college choices, and 84 percent of those said they prefer campuses that restrict firearms. Importantly, about 38 percent of enrolled students who attend some classes in person say they worry “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about gun violence on campus.
  • Reproductive healthcare policies are a significant consideration, with 71 percent of students citing its importance to their college choice. Of this group, eight in 10 prefer states with fewer restrictions on reproductive healthcare. This is especially true for female, younger, Black, and Hispanic and Latino students. Increasingly, medical students are choosing states for training based on abortion laws; 14 states have banned abortions in nearly all circumstances following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
  • Free and open discourse is essential, with 76 percent of students saying it’s important that they be able to discuss race, gender, and other “divisive topics” in classrooms. Most students prefer colleges without restrictions on these and other topics, underscoring the value placed on academic freedom.
  • Affirmative action policies are crucial to many students, with three-fourths of Asian adults and more than half of Black adults saying the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision will have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of influence on their decision to pursue degrees.

While we see partisan differences across all four policy issues—and some new laws and policies are not yet fully understood—most students of all political parties who say these issues are important to their college lives prefer more restrictive gun policies, less restrictive reproductive healthcare laws, and fewer limits on what and how they learn and form their own opinions.

Wake-up call

We weren’t the only family to get an alarming wake-up call during a college shooting; there have been 13 mass shootings on college campuses since the 1960s. Michigan State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas are just a few recent tragedies, forcing students to decide whether to stay in school and which laws, policies, and practices might affect their well-being.

At a time when college enrollments are declining across the U.S., we must listen carefully to students to understand and ease their fears and stresses. These obstacles hurt colleges and universities, too, which rely on talent and diversity of students, faculty, and staff to thrive.

With these fresh data, we must take a hard look at how policies and practices influence students’ decisions about college. By fostering environments prioritizing safety, inclusivity, and academic freedoms, we can give all students opportunities to pursue their educational aspirations. Only then can we truly harness the full potential of the power of learning—including the right to learn without fearing for our lives.

The Politics of College Choice | Inside Higher Ed | March 14, 2024

U.S. students prefer colleges in states that allow abortion and are strict on guns | Semafor | March 14, 2024

[Courtney Brown, Ph.D., is vice president of impact and planning for Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation that works to help all Americans learn beyond high school. As chief data and research officer, Brown oversees Stronger Nation and assesses what those data mean for people and policies. Brown is a popular speaker in the U.S. and abroad on postsecondary strategy, student success, data-driven decision-making, and evidence-based practices. She has partnered with Gallup to survey and drive higher education progress.]

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