Fall 2002 Youth Survey - Executive Summary

  • Overall, trust in government institutions is high, although not as high as this time last year. The military remains the most trusted government institution with 70% trusting it to do the right thing all or most of the time, followed by the President at 58%. Students are least trustful of large corporations and the media.
  • Similarly, participation in political campaigns and government, political or issues-related organizations has fallen after a temporary rise in October 2001.
  • Thirty-two percent of undergraduates say they are registered and will definitely vote this November. If turnout reflects this figure, college students will vote at twice the rate of their age group (16.6% turnout for 18 to 24 year olds1). Black students are more likely to be registered and to vote in the upcoming election and they are more likely than other ethnic groups to attend political rallies or demonstrations.
  • College students have spare time and are generous in sharing it. Sixty-seven percent of college students say they have time to be involved in activities outside of school and work, and 61% of college students indicate they have volunteered for community service in the last 12 months. The single greatest predictor of volunteerism in community service is whether the student volunteered in high school (89% of students who participated in community service in the last twelve months had volunteered in high school).
  • Students believe that volunteerism is an effective way of solving important issues facing the country and their community. Ninety-three percent believe volunteerism is an effective way of solving important issues facing their community; 84% believe community volunteerism is an effective way of solving important issues facing the country as a whole.
  • Similarly, careers in non-profit or community-based organizations are strong contenders for future employment while interest in running for public office is very low. Sixty-eight percent say they would very or somewhat seriously consider working for a non-profit or community-based organization for some part of their future employment. Fifty-six percent say they would consider working for the government (excluding military) but only 16% of respondents say they would consider running for public office.
  • College students believe politics is relevant, but remain uninvolved in political organizations, demonstrations, or campaigns. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed (63%) think that politics is relevant to their lives and just over half (56%) believe that politics has tangible results. Most students (87%) believe that political engagement is an effective way of solving important issues facing the country. Eighty-four percent say the same for issues facing the community.
  • Undergraduates are not engaging in the political system. Only 9% say they have participated in a political campaign in the last 12 months and only 14% say they have participated in a government, political, or issues-related organization in the last 12 months. Eighty percent of students say they have not participated in a political rally or demonstration in the same time period. Factors that influence whether a student engages in political activities include: whether somebody asked them to participate, direct contact with a government official or candidate, and regular discussions about politics and current events with family members while growing up.
  • College students are watching and talking about current events but distrust the media. Seventy-one percent of college students indicate they read a newspaper or watch the news more than once per week. More than two-thirds of all college students (68%) say they discuss political issues with family and friends more than once per week. Trust in the media to do the right thing all or most of the time, however, is only 12% -- the lowest rating of the institutions tested in the survey.
  • On a scale of 0-10, 26% of students feel that the American political system is very sound (8-10) while only 3% of students feel the system is very flawed (0-2). African American students, however, are less likely than other ethnic groups to rate our political system as very sound.
  • African Americans students are more politically active and more skeptical of the system. While African American students are much less likely to expect tangible results from political involvement than their white colleagues (46% and 60% respectively), they are the most likely ethnic group to vote and are more likely to be involved in political organizations (28%) than the general student population (20%). African American skepticism towards institutions seems to be reserved for the civilian government: they are less likely than students in general to trust the federal government (38% to 51%) and Congress (42% to 52%), while trusting the ethics of the military, large corporations, and the media to the same extent as other ethnic groups.



  • Barriers to engagement need to be lowered. Eighty-six percent of college students indicate they need more practical information about politics before getting involved. Almost nine in ten students (89%) say volunteering in the community is easier than volunteering in politics.
  • High schools need to foster and emphasize political activity to build a foundation for political engagement similar to the promotion of community service. Eighty percent of undergraduates volunteered for community service while in high school and eighty-nine percent of those who are currently volunteering had done so in high school. In general, 64% of all students have volunteered for community service in the last twelve months.
  • Bring a friend! Students need to ask friends to vote and become politically active. On a scale of 0 to 10 (0=definitely not attend; 10=definitely attend), more than one-third of respondents are very likely (8-10) to attend a political rally or demonstration on an issue they support if a friend asked them. Furthermore, 24% of students would very likely volunteer on a political campaign if asked by a friend. One-quarter of the undergraduate population translates to almost three million young voters who could be mobilized by appeals from their peers.
  • Elected officials need to connect with young people and government agencies should actively recruit on college campuses. Ninety-two percent of college students say more direct contact with elected officials, political candidates, and others in government would be a very or somewhat effective way of getting students involved in politics. Likewise, 90% say campus recruitment by government agencies would be an effective method of motivating students into public service.

Trust in large corporations to do the right thing all or most of the time is extremely low compared to the federal government (19% corporations vs. 51% federal government). Paradoxically, seventy percent of respondents (31% very + 39% somewhat seriously) say they would consider working for a large corporation after graduation while 56% (18% very + 38% somewhat) say they would consider working for the government.

  • Athletes, actors, and entertainers can influence young people to become involved in politics and public service, particularly minority students. Seventy-one percent of respondents believe the involvement of respected celebrities and sports figures would be effective in boosting political engagement. Among African-American and Hispanic students, involvement of role models is seen as particularly effective (80% and 81% respectively).
  • Politically oriented students are not alienated from other students. Although only one-fifth of students have recently engaged in politics or a political organization, almost half of the respondents (47%) believe that young people involved in politics are essentially the same as themselves. In community service, on the other hand, the number of students who felt that participants were the same as themselves was roughly equivalent to the number already involved (68% and 61%, respectively). This discrepancy may represent an opportunity for growth in student political involvement that is not reflected when it comes to community service.



This survey is the third in an annual project at Harvard University's Institute of Politics ("IOP"). The first survey was conducted in April 2000, the second in October 2001, and the third in October 2002. For tracking purposes, a number of questions remain the same throughout the surveys, while the majority of questions change from year to year. All three surveys were designed by a team of Harvard undergraduates working with the staff and Fellows of Harvard's Institute of Politics and with John DellaVolpe of Schneiders / Della Volpe / Schulman ("S/D/S"), a national opinion research firm.

S/D/S executed the survey through telephone interviews with a random sample of undergraduate students at four-year colleges and universities in the United States. A total of 1,200 interviews lasting 19 minutes each were conducted between October 18 and October 26, 2002. The margin of error is +/- 2.8% at a 95% confidence level. For smaller subgroups, the margin of error is larger.


Working Group

Dan Glickman, IOP Director
Gordon Li, Director of Outreach
Cathy McLaughlin, Executive Director
John DellaVolpe, S/D/S


Peter Buttigieg ’04, Project Co-Chair
Ryan Rippel ’04, Project Co-Chair
Rahul Rohatgi ’03, Project Co-Chair

Daniel Margolskee ’05
Venu Nadella ’04
James Paquette ’06
Jonathan Chavez ’05
Peter Schwartzstein ’04
Guillermo Coronado ’05
Genevieve Sheehan ’05
Edward Couch ’05
Ganesh Sitaraman ’04
Andy Frank ’05
Elise Stefanik ’06
Joey Hanzich ’06
Rob Varady ’06
Nicholas Ma ’05
Lixin Xu ’06

The Institute of Politics

The Institute of Politics began operation in 1966 with an endowment from the Kennedy Library Corporation. A living memorial to President John F. Kennedy, the Institute seeks to unite students, particularly undergraduates, with academicians, politicians, activists, and policymakers on a non-partisan basis and to stimulate and nurture their interest in public service and leadership.