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Rafi Nolan-Abrahamian
PS 115: Public Opinion and Survey Research
Professor Portney
December 13, 2007

The Role of Socioeconomic Status in Determining
Political Participation among College and Non-College Students

1Among the factors contributing to higher political engagement at the individual
level, socioeconomic status and educational attainment are two of the most accepted and
often cited. Using results from the 2007 Tisch College National Civic and Political
Engagement of Young People Survey, this paper examines the effects of these variables
upon young people, specifically testing the hypothesis that attending college eliminates
the strong relationship between higher socioeconomic status and higher political activity.
Should the hypothesis be shown to be correct, lower class full-time college students will
not demonstrate reduced political activity relative to middle and upper class students, but
non full-time college students will continue to do so relative to their counterparts; higher
relative rates of political activity among lower class college students are expected due to
both the additional opportunities available on a college campus, and higher educational
attainment among this group. With respect to the latter point, this hypothesis can also be
seen as a test of whether or not the correlation between wealth and political participation
outweighs the commonly accepted positive correlation between political participation and
educational attainment. The hypothesis is thus framed with educational status and
socioeconomic status constituting the independent variables, and political activity
constituting the dependent variable. Both of these variables can be assessed fully using
questions from the 2007 version of the Tisch College National Civic and Political
Engagement of Young People Survey.
Review of Previous Research
Previous studies of political voting behavior have clearly established the positive
link between socioeconomic status and participation. Milbrath and Goel (1977) explore
this relationship, finding that those with higher class status and income are more likely to
2engage politically as a result of greater resources, greater opportunity, and social norms
which encourage such behavior. Walsh, Jennings, and Stoker (2004) specifically
examine the links between class identification and political participation across several
decades, and find that those declaring themselves as working class have consistently
displayed significantly lower levels of political engagement than their middle class
Similarly, the link between attending educational attainment and higher
participation is also well-established. Milbrath and Goel (1977) assert this strong
positive correlation as well, citing the greater awareness of government activities, more
advanced opinions, and greater confidence in one’s ability to influence government that
result from higher education. Jarvis, Montoya, and Mulvoy (2005) more specifically
examine the disparities between college and non-college students, finding that college
students were far more likely to engage in political activities.
The importance of political engagement in a participatory democracy is widely
accepted, with many observers denouncing what they see as the low rates of participation
among young generations (Jarvis, Montoya, and Mulvoy, 2005). The low rates of
participation among the poor and lower class, though less often discussed, is also
troublesome; in both instances, weak levels of engagement affect policymaking, lowering
the chances of each group’s interests being adequately represented in government. In
seeking to boost participation rates, therefore, it is essential to know which factors bear
the strongest relationship, and whether or not educational factors can eliminate or reduce
the effects of social class and income. Measuring the importance of these factors in
3determining the activity of young people thus holds important implications for affecting
political participation, both among the young and in the population at large.
Results of this study are based upon responses to the 2007 Tisch College National
Civic and Political Engagement of Young People Survey, a questionnaire designed to
measure civic and political participation, as well as political knowledge and attitudes
towards civic and political engagement. The survey was conducted via email by
Polimetrix, which obtained 1,629 responses to the survey in November 2007 from a set of
active panelists, and then selected 1,000 finalists to match the target sample described
below. Of the initial responses, 993 were directly chosen, representing 31.2% of those
invited, and 636 were redirected from other surveys, representing 66.7% of the total
number redirected. The final set of responses was weighted to account for the age, race,
education and gender of both the 18-24 population as a whole, and the separate college
and non full-time college responses.
The final sample consisted, by design, of 1,000 non-military persons aged 18-24,
500 of whom were full-time college students and 500 of whom were not. Military
personnel were excluded because they are not free to engage in the types of participation
measured; the stratified sample was employed to ensure adequate sample sizes for
comparisons across the two groups. This process and the means through which the 1,000
responses were initially selected from the larger group are far from random, and could
potentially bias the results. In addition, the low response rates listed—particularly for
directly chosen respondents—indicates a degree of self-selection which could also skew
conclusions drawn from the survey, potentially drawing respondents more likely to have
4engaged in political activities. That said, the stratified sample used in the survey is ideal,
given the hypothesis tested and practical considerations.
The independent variables of economic status and socioeconomic status were
defined through the use of four questions (only three of which are applied to any one
respondent). The first, and most straightforward, obtains educational status, by asking
“Are you currently enrolled full-time in a four year college or university?” The second
was a self-identification of class, asking “How would you describe the socio-economic
category of the household where you grew up?” The third and fourth requested estimates
of one’s parents’ income and one’s personal income, and applied to college students and
non full-time college students, respectively (These were phrased as “Which of the
following income categories includes your parents’ total household income for 2006?”
and “Which of the following income categories includes your total household income for
The dependent variable of political engagement was measured first through the
number of select political activities respondents engaged in over the past year, divided
into two separate types of participation. The first group was drawn from two sets of
questions, each in response to the prompt “How many hours were you involved with this
organization or program in the last twelve months?” Response categories included in this
analysis from the first prompt were “Civic issue related conference or seminar,” “Civil
Liberties Organization,” and “Government or Political Organization,” while categories
from the second such prompt included “Wrote a policy analysis paper,” “Worked or
volunteered for a political campaign,” and “Helped to promote political involvement or
assisted with voter registration.” These questions were selected to encompass a broad set
5of participatory political and civic actions which at the same time are relatively
comparable in terms of the commitment required.
The second, narrower, group of questions was drawn from the same prompt as the
latter three listed above, but were separated because they generally require a lesser degree
of participation, and were thus deemed fundamentally different from the previous six
responses. This group consisted of the following responses: “Participated in online
political discussions or visited a politically oriented website,” “Contacted or visited a
public official (at any level of government) to ask for assistance or to express my
opinion,” and “Contacted a newspaper, magazine, radio, or television program to express
my opinion on an issue or candidate.”
Although all of the relevant survey questions asked respondents to list the amount
of time spent on each activity over the past year, the number of hours did not factor into
this analysis; if the respondent spent any time at all on a particular activity, he or she was
listed has having participated. This simplification was done both for practical concerns
and uncertainty over whether respondents would accurately gauge the amount of time
spent on a particular activity over the course of a year.
Political engagement was also measured through one question on voter
registration status and one on past voting behavior. The former is phrased “We
understand that plenty of young people are not registered to vote, but we are wondering if
you are currently registered to vote?” while the latter is a more straightforward “Have
you ever voted?” Measurements of voting activity are far from perfect, as many
researchers believe that, because the behavior is socially desirable, respondents will tend
to over-report such actions (Bradburn et al., 1978). Nevertheless, these questions tackle
6an essential component of political engagement, and do so in a relatively balanced
manner (for example, by making it clear that many young people are not registered,
possibly reducing the aforementioned response bias).
Regardless of the validity of the hypothesis, a few patterns can be expected to
emerge. To begin with, one would expect non-full-time college students, as a group, to
demonstrate less political activity than full-time college students. One would also expect
low-income non full-time college students to demonstrate relatively low levels of
political engagement. However, for the hypothesis to be accurate, a strong correlation
should emerge between socioeconomic status and political participation within the group
of non-full-time college students, a correlation which should not exist among full-time
students. More specifically, lower class, middle class, and upper class students would be
expected to all display relatively equal, and moderate, levels of political engagement,
while low-income non full-time students would display low levels of engage, middle
class non full-time students would display higher levels of participation, and upper class
non full-time students would display still higher levels (although these would still likely
be lower than those of their student counterparts).
With the questioning and sampling methods thus determined, assessing the
validity of the hypothesis should prove to be a relatively straightforward task. There are,
of course, other factors which contribute to political activity that must be controlled for;
socioeconomic status and education, however, have certainly proved to be two of the
most important determinants of political engagement in the United States population at

For each of the four measures of political participation, separate cross tabulations
were made between the two independent variables of self-identification of socioeconomic
status and stated annual income. For the cross tabulations involving socioeconomic
status, six response categories have been condensed into three, with poor, lower class,
and lower middle class combined into one lower class category, and upper middle and
upper class into one upper class category. This stems from individuals’ well-documented
tendency to identify themselves as some form of middle class (citation here); this study
proved no exception, with too few responses of “poor,” “lower class,” or “upper class”
for significant patterns to emerge across these groups.
Although the examination of our hypothesis begins with stated socioeconomic
status, cross tabulations between annual income and the independent variables are
presented alongside each of the aforementioned tables in order to confirm the findings.
Income categories have also been condensed, although the categories are not identical
between college and non full-time college students. This difference is incorporated in
part because the personal incomes of non full-time college students will generally be
lower than the parental incomes of college students, a difference arising from lower
socioeconomic status of those not attending college, the greater likelihood that young
people will be working in entry-level positions, and the simply fact much of this age
group is single while parental household income will generally represent the earnings of
two workers. Income categories for non full-time college students have also been divided
into four categories rather than three because the weighted number of responses was far
greater for this group.
8Table 1:
College Students
Number of Socioeconomic Status
Political Activities Lower Class Middle Class Upper Class
0 42.0% 49.5% 37.8%
1 or 2 31.9% 25.7% 33.1%
3 or 4 12.6% 12.6% 19.7%
5 or 6 13.4% 12.1% 9.4%
Total Number 119 214 127

Non full-time college Students
Number of Socioeconomic Status
Political Activities Lower Class Middle Class Upper Class
0 75.0% 66.8% 56.7%
1 or 2 15.8% 16.3% 26.7%
3 or 4 6.1% 11.9% 10.0%
5 or more 3.1% 5.0% 6.7%
Total Number 196 202 60

Table 1 depicts the cross tabulation between socioeconomic status and the first set of
political activities. The findings in this table fit with the hypothesis that attending college
full-time eliminates the correlation between socioeconomic status and political
participation. Among non full-time college students this relationship remains fairly
strong, with lower-class individuals significantly more likely than both middle and upper-
class individuals to engage in any activity at all. Meanwhile lower class students are
slightly more likely than their middle class counterparts to participate (though this
difference does not appear statistically significant), and although upper class students are
most likely to engage politically at all, lower class students are most likely to engage in
five or six activities. Finally, comparing college and non full-time college students,
lower-class college students are significantly more likely than any group of non full-time
college students to participate in a relevant form of political activity.

9Table 2:

College Students
Number of Household Income
Political less than 40,000- more than
Activities 40,000 74,999 75,000
0 38.1% 40.2% 39.2%
1 or 2 34.9% 29.3% 36.1%
3 or 4 11.1% 17.1% 16.5%
5 or 6 15.9% 13.4% 8.2%
Total Number 63 82 97

Non full-time college Students
Number of Personal Income
Political less than 20,000- more than
Activities 20,000 39,999 40,000-74,999 75,000
0 76.1% 71.4% 64.0% 54.4%
1 or 2 14.8% 16.4% 23.0% 26.6%
3 or 4 5.6% 6.3% 9.4% 15.2%
5 or 6 3.5% 5.8% 3.6% 3.8%
Total Number 142 189 139 79

Table 2 substitutes income for self-identification of class status, and nearly
identical patterns emerge. One should note that among non full-time college students,
almost all significant differences appear between small amounts of activity or none at all;
the level of those participating in five or six activities among this group is extremely
The expected pattern, however, does occur in the second measure of political
activity employed. According to Table 3, socioeconomic status does not appear to be
playing a major role in determining whether either college or non full-time college
students would participate. Table 4 presents a different view, but one which does not fit
the hypothesis, as the lowest income individuals display the highest rates of non-
participation among both college students and non full-time college students; thus, the