Image: A black-and-white photo of graduates from behind, only a sea of mortarboards are visible. Image via pixabay, Pixabay License.

Like the generations before them, today’s college students have been important leaders in social activism. This activism is likely to decline sharply, however, for those graduating in the next few weeks. Why? In a new article, Jonathan Horowitz shows how the post-college decline in activism is driven by fewer opportunities for involvement.

Horowitz’s longitudinal research combines survey data and interviews to track college activists over time. Previously, social scientists have argued that activism declines after college because people have less time and more family and professional responsibilities. Or that family members and peers might pressure people to “get serious” after college, only tolerating idealism during college as a phase. Horowitz, however, finds that neither time pressures nor declining social support can explain the 80% post-graduation decline in activist involvement he observes. Instead, it is mostly about the rich opportunities for activism that college life offers.

During their time in college, Horowitz’s respondents describe quick walks from the library to the activist meetings with which they are involved. Students bump into friends on campus and receive invitations to social justice events. The college activists in Horowitz’s sample are busy, spending considerable time on school work and part-time jobs. However, it is easy for them to switch between classwork and activist activities and dense, busy college campuses are full of opportunities to engage in activism. 

Horowitz’s findings are a necessary reminder that today’s college students are not entitled and privileged, with lots of free time to engage in social movements. They are busy, motivated, and have a lot of responsibilities. Even still, they choose to engage in social justice activism. The physical environment of college campuses, and college students’ broad networks of campus friends and acquaintances, make this choice easy and convenient. This suggests that one way to engage young people in activism after college is to make it easier for them to access social justice opportunities and events — as easy as rolling out of your dorm bed and into your 8 a.m volunteer shift.