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10 Notable Colleges for Politics

May 31, 2013 | By Aimee Hosler

College is a time for discovering who you are and who you want to be, and that often means redefining your political world view. Some campuses take that lesson to heart. Since Harvard University became the nation's first college in 1636, American colleges have served as staging grounds for social or political activism. From women's and civil rights to anti-war and free speech demonstrations, college students have seen -- and done -- it all. The following schools, listed alphabetically, are just 10 examples of colleges that have earned a reputation for their political inclination.

American University

  • Washington, D.C.: One might expect a college named "American" to be popping with political fervor, and this D.C. school certainly delivers. AU has been knee-deep in politics from almost the beginning: In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt laid a cornerstone of an edifice named in honor of President William McKinley, a good friend of AU's founder, John Fletcher Hurst. When the school officially opened in 1914, amidst World War I, it was President Woodrow Wilson who gave the dedication. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that in August 2012, The Princeton Review named AU the college with the most politically active students, according to The Huffington Post. Those students who want to turn their activism into a career can study political science or public policy and pursue the city's political internship opportunities.

Georgetown University

  • Washington, D.C.: Georgetown is near the heart of American politics, both literally and figuratively. Not only is it situated in Washington D.C., but also, its alums include a number of prominent diplomats, military leaders, and elected government officials, including President Bill Clinton. In fact, in 2010, U.S. News & World Report ranked Georgetown among the top colleges for members of Congress, and in 2012, The Princeton Review deemed it the second most politically active campus in the nation. Georgetown offers a plethora of political disciplines -- from science technology and international affairs to government and public policy -- and more than a dozen politically-inclined student clubs and organizations.

Grinnell College

  • Grinnell, IA: According to this Iowa college's students, political activism and civic engagement are ever-present themes on and around the campus. Distinguished alumni include a women's rights activist, a vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and even a former commander-in-chief of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement. Grinnell also offers a number of degree programs in areas such as political science and policy studies.


  Related Online Colleges for Political Science


Hampshire College

  • Amherst, MA: Like many colleges featured on this list, Massachusetts-based Hampshire -- and its students -- are not afraid to rock the political boat once in a while. In 2009, Hampshire became the first U.S. college to divest from a fund that contributed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, reports SocialistWorker.org. The school is also noted for its commitment to sustainability, and according to Colleges That Change Lives, Sierra Magazine named Hampshire one of the nation's "coolest schools" for its efforts to fight global warming. Hampshire offers students a number of unique political programs, such as the Community Partnerships for Social Change and the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program -- in addition to education in areas such as peace and world securities.

Harvard University

  • Cambridge, MA: From John Adams to Barack Obama, Harvard has educated a fair number of U.S. presidents -- and many other prominent public officials. The school has been such a hotbed for political leadership that in 1966, it founded the Institute of Politics. The political institute oversees the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum, which Harvard describes as "one of the world's premier arenas for political speech, discussion, and debate." The IOP provides opportunities for students to engage in political conferences and debate prominent political issues. Harvard is also the birthplace of the eponymous Harvard Political Review, a party-neutral magazine written and published completely by Harvard undergraduates. HPR alums include well-known political minds such as Al Gore and Jeffrey Sachs.

Oberlin College

  • Oberlin, OH: The political history at Ohio's Oberlin College is inextricably intertwined with that of the nation. According to the Oberlin Heritage Center, it was effectively the first coeducational college in the country, as well as a pioneer in race-blind admissions. Some of the best-known political minds have given commencement addresses at Oberlin, including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Oberlin continues its tradition of developing future leaders though a diversity of programs, including politics; peace and conflict studies; and gender, sexuality, and feminist studies.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  • Chapel Hill, NC: Authorized by the state constitution in 1776, UNC became the nation's first public university and has since educated a number of notable political leaders and activists, including President James Polk and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. UNC continues to produce a solid number of political and social leaders each year: The class of 2012, for instance, included 290 Buckley Public Services Scholars. UNC is also noted for its contribution to sustainability and even earned the 10th-highest spot on the first UI GreenMetric World University Ranking for its efforts, according to the school's official site.

University of California, Berkeley

  • Berkeley, CA: When UC Berkeley instituted a campus-wide ban on political activities in 1964, the students didn't just protest -- they started a full-blown national movement called the Free Speech Movement, reports Calisphere. According to the college's official website, Berkeley's affinity with political activism started long before the FSM, and the school considers itself a magnet for "free-thinkers" who challenge conventional political assumptions. Among them: Michigan's first woman governor Jennifer Granholm, free speech activist Mario Savio, California Gov. Jerry Brown, and former U.S. Ambassador to Libya John Christopher Stevens.

University of Michigan

  • Ann Arbor, MI: From its early pro-union sentimentalities to its role in the affirmative action debate, Michigan is a decidedly political state. UM helps students harness and apply their political enthusiasm through the school's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, which manages the Michigan in Washington Program. MWP and the school's Public Service Internship Program helps match students with internships in Washington D.C.. Politically-inclined students can also exercise their activism through UM's dozen political clubs.

University of Wisconsin, Madison

  • Madison, WI: You cannot discuss the University of Wisconsin in Madison's history of political activism without also addressing its military tradition. Yes, UW has been an epicenter of sorts for anti-war protests, beginning with the Vietnam War and continuing through the recent war in Iraq, but it also played an active role in the Civil War, launched military science coursework during World War I, and educated thousands of GIs via correspondence during both world wars. The UW-Madison Libraries maintain a recorded oral history of political and social activism on campus, and issues range from collective bargaining rights to nuclear power. UW-Madison has also educated a number of political figures, including Yeshey Zimba - former prime minister of Bhutan - and Gaylord Nelson - former U.S. senator, former Wisconsin governor, and founder of Earth Day.

Online students can flex their political muscles, too

The campuses featured on this list certainly served as an important backdrop to many of the nation's political and social movements, but that doesn't mean students attending online colleges can't express their passion for politics. Many online colleges feature programs in disciplines such as political science or public policy, and students can often still apply for internships through government or political organizations. If you want to launch a career in public service and leadership and attend school online, we recommend contacting potential schools directly to learn more about how they can best help you achieve your goals.