As the 2020 presidential election nears, college students across the country are facing a fall semester unlike any other. The pandemic has turned their everyday lives upside down, the economic recession has financially wounded them and the most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed them into a new era of activism.
According to a report released today from the Knight Foundation and College Pulse, the majority of college students plan to have their voices heard in the upcoming election.
For the report, the organizations surveyed 4,000 full-time college students and found that 71% are "absolutely certain" they will vote this year.
"If 71% of the ballpark 10 million undergrads at four-year colleges turned out, it would have a sizable impact on the election," says Evette Alexander, director of learning and impact at the Knight Foundation, noting that such a high participation rate is still unlikely and would be unprecedented.
When asked "If you were to cast your vote today, for whom would you vote?" 70% of those surveyed said they would pick former Vice President Biden and only 18% of students said they would pick President Donald Trump. A significant 81% of those surveyed said they have an unfavorable view of Trump.
Students who identify as Democrats were most likely to say they plan to vote in the upcoming election. Roughly 81% of likely Democrats, 74% of Republicans and 63% of independents said they are absolutely certain they will vote. Notably, 10% of independens said they are fairly or absolutely certain they will not vote.
Addressing the coronavirus pandemic was the biggest concern among those who were surveyed, with 33% identifying it as their most important issue. Race relations and climate change were the second and third more important issues to those surveyed, with 22% and 12% identifying those topics as their top concern, respectively.
CNBC Make It recently spoke with college students who are planning to vote in the upcoming election. Many said health care and racial justice are among their main priorities.
"It's extremely important that our nominees are pushing for racial justice in America because we need national leadership who can make sure our voices are heard in policy decisions," says Alliyah Logan, a freshman at Smith College and soon-to-be first-time voter. "And, we need national leadership supporting us and saying that Black people deserve human rights and human decency when it comes to interacting with police and many other things."
Logan continues, "Another very important issue for me is health care. When looking at the impact of Covid-19 we see how it impacted all people in general, but it more heavily impacted the Black community and Native American community just because of systematic oppression. So for me, establishing a universal health plan that all people can have access to is very important."
The survey found that there are significant differences in how likely Democrats and Republicans plan to vote, with Democrats being more than twice as likely to say they plan to vote by mail or absentee.
These differences in how students plan to vote could have significant consequences.
Policies that would diminish the U.S. Postal Services' ability to deliver mail-in ballots would disproportionately impact Democrats, says Alexander.
"Students identifying with the Democratic party would be more affected, as they show a greater intention to vote by mail, followed by those identifying as Independents," she explains. "But a sizable 31% of Republican students intend to vote by mail, so they would be impacted as well."
And while young voters expressed significant interest in participating in the election, many expressed serious skepticism.
The majority of those surveyed (55%) said the election will not be administered well and 49% said the election won't be fair and open.
"We as a society should be paying attention to and concerned about the lack of trust in our democratic institutions and elections process among the emerging generation," says Alexander. "What does this mean for the future of our democracy?"