Six decades of data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) supports this line of thinking.
HERI has regularly presented a list of “objectives” to be achieved in college to incoming students who were asked if they were “essential” or “very important.” When asked about “keeping up to date with political affairs,” for instance, 57% of students on average thought this was essential or very important throughout the 1960s. This figure dropped significantly in the 1970s to 46% and a few points lower to an average of 43% in the 1980s.
By the 1990s, interest in politics waned even more to 37% and from 2000 to the 2015, the number slipped a few points more to 35% – a figure 20 points lower than the 1960s. By 2015, the figure ticked up a bit with the generational change on campus, and by 2017, the figure climbed to 48%....
HERI went further and asked the same students about performing volunteer or community service work. This is, of course, a different way to have political influence and the data show that there has been a steady increase from 1990, when only 17% believed that there was a “very good chance’ that they will engage in service, compared to 37% in 2017 –an increase of almost 118%.
Finally, incoming students were also asked about whether they intended to “participate in student protests or demonstrations” between 1967 and 2015, and that number has remained low over the past five decades. Only about 6% of incoming students on average said that there is a “very good chance” that they will protest. This figure vacillated between about 3.5% and 8% – but never crossed the 9% line, revealing that incoming college students are not inclined to be as radically engaged as the media often portrays them – and they weren’t so inclined even in the 1960s when the U.S. was going through massive socio-political change. Moreover, these protest statistics have barely changed even when other measures of political and social engagement have significantly shifted over time.