Protesters at universities across the United States see themselves as continuing a legacy of student activism dating back to the late 1960s. The pro-Palestine organizers at Columbia University, for example, circulated a graphic comparing the 2024 “Gaza solidarity encampments” with the 1968 protests opposing the Vietnam War and orchestrated a copycat occupation of Hamilton Hall. At my alma-mater the University of Pennsylvania, outspoken faculty supporters expressed similar sentiments. But the Gaza protests differ from Vietnam-era radicalism in an important respect: thanks to demographic changes at the Ivy League, they have been less effective than their predecessors in drawing support from students.

In 1968, when the now-infamous Columbia riots took place, only 38 percent of 18-19 year olds in America were enrolled in college. Though that number was rising, it was significantly lower than today’s figure of 50 percent. College students represented only a small portion of the American populace—one that was disproportionately white, male, and wealthy. The demographic imbalance was even more pronounced at elite schools, many of which didn't admit women until the early 1970s and had marginal numbers of minority students, particularly blacks, who were encouraged to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Given the lack of need-blind admissions practices at elite schools, federal student loans, and university-funded financial aid, first-generation and moderate-income college students were few and far between at most colleges.

It’s not surprising, then, that protests like those at Columbia in 1968 shook these elite student bodies into heightened states of political awareness. After all, some of these students, coming from wealthy families, were attending college precisely to avoid being drafted. The 1960s student movement was thus driven in part by what might today be called an “acknowledgment of privilege.”

But the pro-Palestinian encampments have not won similar levels of backing from today’s college students. Only 45 percent said that they supported the encampments. Just 13 percent said the war in the Middle East was important to them. By contrast, polling from 1969 indicates that 69 percent of college students supported de-escalation in Vietnam, and 50 percent believed U.S. involvement had been a mistake altogether. And thousands of students joined the protests themselves.

Wealthy and white students at elite universities have always been more driven to activism than their middle- and lower-class counterparts. A recent Washington Monthly report noted that levels of student activism were inversely correlated with the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants. Similarly, at 78 HBCUs across the U.S., where 64 percent of students receive Pell Grants, only nine saw protests, and none had encampments. The more aid a university’s students receive, the less likely the Gaza protests are to be both widespread and intense.

While America’s wealthiest families remain overrepresented in the Ivy League, (10 percent to 20 percent of students hail from families in the top 1 percent of earners), the demographics of these universities have changed. The schools are now approximately 60 percent nonwhite, with 50 percent of students receiving need-based financial aid. Just under 20 percent of students at Columbia alone are attending with the help of a Pell Grant.

This change helps explain both the declining student support for, and lack of student involvement in, the encampments. At Columbia, more than 30 percent of those arrested were not affiliated with the university. At Penn, the lack of undergraduate student involvement was apparent in the average age of the protesters, most of whom were adult community activists who were antagonistic towards students. Of those students that were involved, many came from privileged backgrounds. 

The 1968 protesters also put more on the line. Columbia’s riot led to one of the largest mass arrests in New York City’s history, with 700 students being taken into custody and another 150 injured. With strict behavioral standards, student activists, even wealthy ones, faced serious consequences. By contrast, I watched as students at Penn this spring remained in unlawful encampments for weeks without police interference; indeed, the university even took measures to protect them.

For students who could not afford to skip their finals to protest, the encampments produced more annoyance than awareness. Their response demonstrates how out of touch elite progressives are from the concerns of ordinary Americans.

Lower- and middle-class students in the Ivy League don’t tend to be steeped in victimhood ideology. They recognize the value of prestigious colleges and universities for self-advancement and are trying to seize the opportunity they have been given. For many, anti-Israel academics and their student-activist counterparts are just the last holdouts of an ivory tower that is losing its luster.

Photo by Thomas Hengge/Anadolu via Getty Images


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