Study Snapshot: Is Collegiate Political Correctness Fake News? Relationships Between Grades and Ideology
Study Snapshot: Is Collegiate Political Correctness Fake News? Relationships Between Grades and Ideology

For Immediate Release: May 22, 2019

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Collin Boylin,
(202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell)

Study Snapshot: Is Collegiate Political Correctness Fake News? Relationships Between Grades and Ideology

Study: "Is Collegiate Political Correctness Fake News? Relationships Between Grades and Ideology"
Authors: Robert Maranto (University of Arkansas), Matthew Woessner (Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg), Amanda Thompson (University of Georgia)

This study was presented at the AERA 2019 Annual Meeting, April 5-9, Toronto, Canada. (Session: Examining Multiple Social Identities and Collegians' Outcomes.) A copy of the working paper is available on the SSRN website.

Main Finding:

  • Researchers found that while standardized test scores are the best predictors of college grade point average, there is also a small relationship with ideology. Even when controlling for social economic status, demographics, and SAT scores, liberal students report somewhat higher college grades and closer relationships with faculty. However, to the degree that ideological biases exist, they have very modest impacts on grade point average, with SAT scores and demographic factors playing much larger roles. Conservative students, who report somewhat higher high school grades, also consistently show higher levels of satisfaction with college courses and experiences.


  • Researchers have thoroughly investigated relationships between standardized test scores, high school grades, and college grades. Evidence suggests that standardized tests are reliable predictors of GPA in college, strengthened when used in tandem with high school GPA. Test score and GPA differences across race, sex, and social class are well documented. However, no prior research has explored whether student ideology affects high school or college grades.
  • The authors note that politicians, the public, and faculty members dispute whether political correctness in U.S. higher education affects undergraduate education, mainly relying on anecdotes rather than empirical analyses. Most notably, prior work has not studied undergraduate grades.
  • Using data from the national Higher Education Research Institute survey of more than 7,200 students in their first (2009) and fourth (2013) years in college, the authors examine whether students’ political beliefs are associated with their reported college grades and perceived collegiate experiences.
  • Findings indicate that while standardized test scores show the most statistical power in predicting GPA, ideology also has impacts. After controlling for demographics and academic ability, conservative students had higher-than-predicted high school grades and lower-than-predicted college grades, findings that could reflect ideological bias or institutional fit, with conservative values such as conformity and institutional loyalty more valued in high schools than in colleges, which are more apt to value creativity.
  • “While our findings indicate that ideology has some impact on undergraduate grade point averages, it is dwarfed by the impacts of SATs and demographic variables,” said study coauthor Robert Maranto, who is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. “To the degree that ideological biases exist, they have very modest impacts. 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.”
  • Overall, holding all else constant, the most liberal student would enjoy just a 0.16 point advantage over the most conservative student on a 7 point scale.  
  • While the statistical evidence could suggest bias in grading against conservative students in college, the authors believe that institutional fit may play a larger role. As previous research suggests, high schools value conformity and community. In contrast, particularly within liberal arts and social science majors, colleges value individuality and creativity. In short, high schools may fit the strengths of conservatives while college better fits the strengths of liberals.
  • The authors note that shifts in academic performance among conservative students could be byproducts of leaving more controlled high school environments. Prior research indicates that students from liberal, secular households, particularly upper-income households, have easier transitions to college compared to conservative students, who lose the close home structures and tight-knit communities they valued during high school.
  • The study also offered insights about socially conservative students. Pro-life students, specifically, report far higher grades in high school, somewhat higher grades in college, and no advantage in “elite” colleges. While this finding could reflect bias at highly selective institutions, the authors note that it is more likely that these students, who report higher levels of delayed gratification, lose their relative advantage at highly selective colleges, where all students tend to delay gratification and work hard.”  
  • The pro-life advantage tends to decline most dramatically in the humanities and social sciences. There is no appreciable decline in the professional fields, and an increase in the advantage in the natural sciences.
  • Overall, conservatives tend to rate all subjects highly, while liberals prefer social sciences and humanities courses over STEM courses.
  • According to the authors, the most important takeaway from the study for the public is that although exceptions exist, for the most part, neither college professors nor high school teachers exhibit substantial ideological bias in grading. This may reflect instructors’ lack of knowledge about student political views, though the authors note that a more likely explanation is that most educators conform to professional ethics urging nonparticipant grading practices.
  • The authors recommend that both high school and college educators acknowledge the possible roles of institutional fit in grading, and perhaps consider efforts to make high schools more accommodating to liberal students, and colleges more accommodating to conservatives, especially social conservatives.
  • “The results of our study do not paint a picture of conservative college students under siege,” said Maranto. “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.”

To talk to the study authors, please contact AERA Communications: Tony Pals, Director of Communications,, (202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell); Collin Boylin, Communications Associate,, (202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell).

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The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.