Student Activism Across the Past 5 Years

Student Activism Across the Past 5 Years

What Higher Ed Leaders Need to Know About Evolving Challenges

Student Activism Trends

EAB analyzed student activism activity across the past five years, which included


activism data points related to protests, petitions, and demands.

Illustration-SAF-extras-01-550x550 (3)

The EAB dataset includes:

Institutions in the United States, Canada, Europe, and South Africa

A variety of institution types (public and private) and sizes (from small to large)

Across multiple platforms and formats: formal demands, social media campaigns, and news reports

Demands have spiked in 2020:


Sets of student demands have been publicized online from March-September 2020, the highest volume since 2016

Student activists are asking us to do more, faster:

  • Demands address wide range of university areas, requiring broad collaboration and buy-in from across the institution
  • Students expect a fast response that outlines actionable next steps rather than just “empty words”
  • Activists are less willing to negotiate; more likely to demand accountability

Common Drivers of Activism at all Universities

From 2015 through 2020, the most common drivers of activism at all universities are as follows:

  • 0%


  • 0%

    Political Events/External Speakers

  • 0%

    COVID-19 Response

  • 0%

    Labor/Worker Rights

  • 0%

    Cost of Attendance

  • 0%

    Gender Rights/Sexual Assault

  • 0%

    Environmental Action

Three Focal Points of Student Unrest Across Past 5 Years


It is important to note that while COVID-19 did not become an issue in the US until Spring 2020, it is still one of the top 3 causes among activists across the past five years.

Dig into the Data

Below, select a tab to dive into the data associated to that section. At the conclusion of every section, check out the customized content suggestions to learn more.

Racial Justice



of 2020 student activism has been focused on racial justice


Of the 500+ student activism data points were racial justice focused

Common Racial Justice Demands

2020 has brought about an upswing in demands from student activists. Some of today’s most common demands have been raised consistently for decades, dating back as far as the 1960s. These reoccurrences highlight higher education’s failure to make significant progress on these concerns for decades.

At the same time, the current cultural moment reckoning and unrest over racial injustice have spurred many new demands, urging institutions to go further than ever before to dismantle racism and its effects.

Below are some the racial justice demands presented to institutions in 2020. As you review this list, take note of demands that have yet to emerge on your campus and consider how your team would respond to a similar demand or how you can address the matter with student’s proactively.

Frequently raised, some even date back to the 1960s

  • Increase faculty and staff of color
  • Increase diversity-focused training for the campus community
  • Add a diversity-focused course requirement
  • Increase transparency and student representation in university decision-making
  • Remove symbols of oppression on campus
  • Hire BIPOC mental health providers specializing in racial trauma

Included in recent demands, newer in the activism terrain

  • Increase access to reports filed against campus police officers, faculty and staff
  • Pay reparations to Indigenous Peoples whose land the university is currently occupying
  • Implement anti-racist curriculum plans
  • Defund campus police or invest in alternative campus safety initiatives
  • Prioritize black-owned business when selecting auxiliary providers

Responding to Racial Justice Demands Requires University-Wide Action

Racial justice demands often require multiple departments to coordinate to take action. In contrast with other types of demands, which have relatively a singular focus, racial justice demands commonly span campus departments ranging from housing, athletics, health services, academic affairs, campus safety, and beyond.


Want to learn more?

Check out key terms to know for equity and inclusion.

Discover what higher education promised on anti-racism in 2020.

Politics & Free Speech


In the hyper-polarized U.S. political climate, there is no shortage of causes or key moments for politics-focused activists. Regardless of ideology, these student activists advocate before, during and between election cycles. Our analysis showed that student activism centered around political topics spiked in the two years following the 2016 presidential election.


of college students planned to vote in the 2020 Presidential Election


of first-year students anticipate some chance they will participate in protests

Common Political and Free Speech-Based Demands

Below are some the demands related to free speech or political events presented to institutions in 2020. As you review this list, take note of demands that have yet to emerge on your campus and consider how your team would respond to a similar demand or how you can address the matter with students proactively.

Hold students, faculty, and staff accountable for offensive hate speech on social media

Eliminate free speech zones

Allow (or disallow) a controversial campus speaker

Close the university on election day

Implement or improve bias-incident response and reporting procedures

Implement zero-tolerance policies regarding racism on campus

Want to learn more?

Discover a two-step process to reviewing your free speech policies.

Learn how to respond to flashpoints on campus with this toolkit.

Update your institutional risk identification and assessment processes.

COVID-19 Response

Illustration-SAF-Covid-550x550 (2)


of students agree that their university is looking out for their bottom line more than the health of students


of 2020 student activism has been focused on University COVID response

COVID-19 has increased the reach of student activism. New activists are reviving familiar controversies surfaced by COVID-19, a virtual-first environment has inspired activists to enhance their digital advocacy skills and following, and as the pandemic has shone a light on inequities, activists are feeling an unprecedented sense of urgency.

  • Renewed Controversies

  • Digital Activism

  • Student Impact

  • Cross-Campus Movements

Social justice activism has reached a new level of urgency because the pandemic has highlighted existing inequities and disproportionally impacted minority groups.

COVID-19 revived controversies around graduate student rights and student athlete unionization, sparking unrest that will persist beyond the pandemic.

The number of students participating has grown with the shift to increased digital activism, forced by COVID-19, and the effectiveness of digital platforms.

With the growth of digital activism, activists on different campuses are more commonly collaborating and sharing strategies.

Common COVID-19 Demands

COVID-19 presented student affairs leaders with challenges unlike any before. Protests, demands, and petitions related to COVID-19 have been prevalent across the past year.

Below are some the demands related to COVID-19 presented to institutions in 2020. As you review this list, take note of demands that have yet to emerge on your campus and consider how your team would respond to a similar demand or how you can address the matter with students proactively.

Reduce or refund tuition and fees due to the negative impact of COVID-19 on experience and services

Increase compensation and safety conditions for housing staff (e.g. RAs, live-in staff)

Improve health and safety conditions for student athletes

Implement pass/fail grading to accommodate COVID-19-related stress

Streamline methods of reporting accessibility issues since classes recently moved online

Want to learn more?

Get up-to-date on higher education's COVID-19 response.

Learn how COVID-19 is shaping digital student activism.

Are you able to address evolving activism challenges?

Use our briefing to inform institutional leadership about the evolving challenges in student activism
and five key recommendations to better prepare to activism.

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