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Conservative college students take a photo with a University of Colorado regent before a Turning Point USA rally on the Boulder campus in 2018. A new study finds that conservative students earn slightly lower grades than liberal students at college, but researchers say it’s not necessarily a sign of faculty bias. Credit: Paul Aiken/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

Harvard’s decision to rescind admission to Parkland-shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv was narrowly about the young man’s racial slurs and misogynistic language at age 16 but it’s also fueling a debate about ideological conservatives on American college campuses. Kashuv is a former high school student leader at Turning Point USA, a conservative group, and vocal proponent of gun rights. The latter led to a meeting with President Donald Trump. Recent publicity about Kashuv’s comments before the shooting prompted Harvard’s action. Kashuv has publicly apologized and some conservative commentators complained that his case was another sign that institutions of higher education aren’t open to different political opinions.

It’s become a shibboleth that conservatives aren’t welcome at universities and that faculty have grown too left-wing in recent years. Even in the reddest of states. But is there any actual evidence that conservative students are penalized by liberal faculty in their classes?

One team of researchers studied more than 7,000 students around the nation who started college in 2009 and found the answer: not so much. They calculated that the most conservative students earned grades that were less than a tenth of a grade point lower than those of the most liberal students on a conventional four-point scale. That’s a small fraction of the difference between a B (a 3.0) and a B-plus (a 3.3), for example.

“The results of our study do not paint a picture of conservative college students under siege,” Robert Maranto, a professor at the University of Arkansas, told the American Educational Research Association (AERA). “For the most part, parents and students of all ideals should retain trust in educational institutions, at least in regards to the ultimate academic merit system, grading.”

Maranto presented his study, “Is Collegiate Political Correctness Fake News? Relationships Between Grades and Ideology,” in Toronto in May 2019 at the annual meeting of the AERA. The research was also conducted by Matthew Woessner at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, and Amanda Thompson at the University of Georgia.

Related: Getting rid of the ‘gotcha’: College students try to tame political dialogue

The slim gap in grades between conservative and liberal students was evident even after controlling for race, gender, socioeconomic status and SAT scores. Even among two white males with similar academic and economic backgrounds, the conservative student was likely to have slightly lower college grades than the liberal student.

That could be seen as evidence of professor bias against the conservative student.

But an alternative explanation lies within students’ psyches.  The kind of individuality and creativity that college professors are looking for, particularly in the liberal arts and social sciences, might be more unfamiliar for conservative students, the researchers explained.

By contrast, conservative students in the study had slightly higher grades in high school than liberal students, the opposite of their relative college performance. The researchers see this as an indication that conservative students might thrive more in an environment that values conformity and community.

The researchers hypothesize that the tighter structure of high schools may fit the strengths of conservatives while college, where students have more autonomy, better fits the strengths of liberals.

To conduct the study, the researchers used data from the Higher Education Research Institute which surveyed college students across the United States during their first and fourth years of college in 2009 and 2013, respectively. Students answered a question about their political beliefs, saying whether they would describe themselves as far right, conservative, middle, liberal or far left. The researchers compared those answers with the students’ self-reported grades in high school and college.

In the statistical calculations, the scholars found that the most liberal student (who self-identified as far left) would enjoy just a 0.16 point advantage over the most conservative student (who self-identified as far right) on a 7-point grade scale, after adjusting for differences in student characteristics. That is roughly equivalent to a 0.09 point advantage on a conventional 4-point scale.

Curiously, despite the slightly lower grades, conservative students consistently expressed higher levels of satisfaction with college courses and experiences.

Related: OPINION: Do we kill the liberal arts when we demonize people for their ideas?

Students who expressed pro-life views, generally a subgroup among conservative students, tended to report higher grades in both high school and college. However, the academic advantage for pro-life students disappeared at elite colleges. That could be a sign of a greater bias against pro-life students at highly selective colleges. But it’s also possible these students, whose survey responses indicated that they are good at delaying gratification, lose their relative advantage at highly selective colleges, where all students tend to delay gratification and work hard.

It’s fun, in a cocktail party conversation sort of way, to consider how student ideology affects college grades. But it’s important to emphasize that family income and academic skills have much more influence in determining how students do in college. SAT scores, high school grades and socioeconomic status were far more predictive of college grades.

“To the degree that ideological biases exist, they have very modest impacts,” said Maranto. “Even if some students are the victims of unconscious bias in grading, our results suggest that academic readiness is a far more important predictor of success than students’ political views.”

This story about conservative students was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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