Meet the Start-up Polling Company Targeting College Students

  • Polling young people is hard, which can lead to the proliferation of caricatures and stereotypes.
  • Generation Lab hopes that their polling, which focuses on college students and young people, can change that.
  • “All of what we do today … came from just a wild amount of trial, error, and torture,” said founder Cyrus Beschloss.

As young people across America first became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine last spring, vaccine hesitancy was widespread among those under 30. In response, New America’s Health Innovations Lab launched a “resource hub” called to encourage young people to get their shots and help achieve herd immunity.

“Young people sort of held the key,” Dr. Susan Blumenthal, the director of the program and a former US Assistant Surgeon General, told Insider in a recent phone interview. But if bringing up vaccination rates among younger Americans was a straightforward goal, figuring out how to reach and persuade them was not. “We were on a grant and didn’t have, you know, enormous funds to pay a big pollster,” she added. 

The think tank’s health initiative, focused on advancing public health through technological innovation, had been devoting much of its energy towards addressing the pandemic, including through social media campaigns aimed at young people that featured celebrities like Mariah Carey and Justin Bieber. But the group wanted to better understand college students’ attitudes as vaccines became more widely available.

To answer that question, Blumenthal turned to Generation Lab, a small polling startup that studies the attitudes and behaviors of young people, with a particular focus on college students.

The company’s 10-person team conducted a poll over the last 6 days of March 2021, reaching just over 800 college students with a survey that included questions about who they trust the most for medical advice, their likelihood of traveling over spring break, and confidence about the vaccine writ large. And as it turned out, 69% of respondents identified their personal doctors — not athletes or celebrities — as their most trusted source of vaccine information.

“A lot of the public health messaging was using athletes and celebrities,” said Blumenthal. “And that’s not who the survey found to be the most effective voices.”

Blumenthal said Generation Lab’s polling “shattered assumptions” and “played a pivotal role in terms of messaging.” 

For Cyrus Beschloss, 25, founder and CEO of Generation Lab, that’s exactly the kind of impact he’s hoping to have with his young company.

Polling college students is one of the group’s specialties — over the course of several years, they’ve built up an impressive roster of email addresses from colleges and universities around the country that includes students from traditional universities, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and women’s colleges. Student responses are then weighted according to the demographic traits of their respective schools to ensure a representative sample.

According to Beschloss, young people are too often viewed through the lens of caricatures, tropes, and sets of assumptions, impacting not just public discourse — “they love Bernie Sanders, they love smoking Juuls, drinking white claws,” Beschloss said mockingly — but how institutions seek to meet young peoples’ needs. 

“Those sorts of caricatures … work their way into a lot of policy,” Beschloss told Insider in a recent interview. “Because we’re working with a flawed picture.”

In this July 30, 2021 file photo, Bradley Sharp, of Saratoga, N.Y., gets the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from registered nurse Stephanie Wagner, in New York.

A college student receives a Johnson & Johnson vaccine on July 30, 2021.

Mark Lennihan/AP Images

‘A wild amount of trial, error, and torture’

The idea to begin specifically polling young people came to Beschloss when he was an undergrad at Williams College and was crystallized in reaction to the “wildly off-base” appeals that 2016 presidential candidates were making to young voters.

“[Hillary Clinton] was jumping on Snapchat and saying ‘I’m just chilling in Cedar Rapids,'” he said, referring to the former Secretary of State’s famous — if not infamous — Snapchat story from Iowa in 2015. “Ben Carson was doing a rap on the radio, and I was like… this is not what they think it is.”

But that quickly led him to a second realization: there’s a dearth of polling data about the opinions and behaviors of young people in particular. “I couldn’t find anything,” said Beschloss.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the country, Matin Mirramezani, then an undergrad at Stanford, was conducting research on human capital and encountering the same lack of high-quality data on young people. The best he could do was to look in the crosstabs of larger polls to see what 18-29 year olds think, but the smaller the sample size, the less reliable the data was. Otherwise, the only data available were large, once-in-a-blue-moon, foundation-funded studies. “It was clear that they had to spend a lot of money on it, and they couldn’t do it quickly,” remarked Mirramezani, now 22.

For academics like Dr. Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College who focuses her research on young people, that lack of polling data is real.

“There aren’t a lot of sources out there on younger people,” Deckman told Insider. “It’s expensive to poll younger people, and it’s harder to get them to respond.”

After being introduced by a mutual acquaintance, Beschloss and Mirramezani partnered up and co-founded “College Reaction” in 2018, a non-partisan polling shop focused exclusively on understanding the views and attitudes of college students. They later expanded their polling to younger people more broadly and rebranded to “Generation Lab” in 2020.

But the biggest challenge was yet to come: building the infrastructure to actually conduct the polling and reach the universe of young people that they hoped to survey.

“Basically all of what we do today, all of that came from just a wild amount of trial, error, and torture,” said Beschloss.

After building an infrastructure focused on polling college students, they later expanded into polling people as young as 13 and as old as 29 by advertising on social media platforms. But in addition to building the infrastructure necessary to poll young people, they had the gain the trust of potential clients.

Results from the group's polling on college freshmen in August 2021.

Results from the group’s polling on college freshmen in August 2021.

Generation Lab

Generation Lab uses online surveys and reaches young people via email and text messages, which Mirramezani said was initially met with a “sour” response from potential clients, given that most traditional pollsters use either random digit dialing via phone or address-based sampling via mail.

“​​They’re not going to be looking at letters, they’re not going to be picking up their phones,” said Rebecca Oh, the company’s 27-year-old chief methodology officer, explaining the necessity of reaching young people via online methods.

And Generation Lab isn’t alone in using online polling. 

“Web represents the sort of cutting edge in terms of feasibility on a number of fronts,” said Johannes Fischer, lead survey methodologist at the left-leaning Data for Progress. “You reach a much wider population of people, you can do so very quickly, and the gains that you get from the efficiency perspective outweigh the costs in terms of quality.”

“There’s a cultural difference in terms of how we relate to anonymous outreach,” he added. “I don’t answer my phone when a random number calls.”

Because Generation Lab is solely focused on polling people under the age of 29, it’s more agile than many of its competitors. Larger pollsters, in contrast, “have to be just as good at polling a 75-year-old in rural Alaska as they do a 19 year old in Brooklyn,” said Beschloss.

“This is sort of the new vanguard in polling, I would say,” said Deckman. “You can weight the data in such a way that it’s pretty close to the gold standard of traditional polling.”

Beschloss and Mirramezani also say that the typical turnaround time for a poll ranges from 24 to 72 hours, which they say is a “big added value” to prospective clients when other outlets may take several days or even weeks. Additionally, the duo can point to their own expertise as members of the generations they seek to survey, allowing them to “make sure the questions make sense to young people” while building a polling infrastructure that’s “ergonomically fitted to how young people want to be polled.” 

Fischer agrees that youth polling, though difficult, is still a worthy endeavor.

“It has the potential to forecast future political dynamics,” he said. “If people have strong views as college students, they may very well carry those with them as they age into the group that votes more, that cares more about politics and participates more.”

The polling industry as a whole has suffered something of a crisis in recent years. Taking stock of polling inaccuracies in the 2020 presidential election, the American Association for Public Opinion Research released a report finding that the polling errors were the “highest in 40 years” in 2020, and that support for Democratic candidates was systematically overestimated on both the presidential and state levels.

But for Generation Lab, and other groups that do online polling, there was a silver lining. The report also found that there were just “minor differences” in the accuracy of different polling methods, and that issues existed “regardless of whether respondents were sampled using random-digit dialing, voter registration lists, or online recruiting.”

“It’s interesting to watch how the conventional wisdom has shifted,” said Mirramezani.

A guest (L) wears gold earrings, a neon pink oversized wool ribbed turtleneck pullover, a white / black / yellow / blue / pink square print braided pattern zipper high neck coat, a white leather clutch, black shiny leather large pants, a guest (R) wears a black leather with sheep interior zipper coat, khaki pants, a wool beige pullover, sunglasses, outside Ulla Johnson, during New York Fashion Week, on February 13, 2022 in New York City.

Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

‘Morning Joe and Fox News in the same day’

Today, Generation Lab counts foundations, advocacy groups, sports teams, consulting firms, and other corporations among its clients. The group has even briefed the White House’s COVID-19 Response Team several times about their polling about how to encourage young people to get vaccinated.

But Beschloss said that working with media organizations and academic initiatives, the group’s first experiences with clients, is “still the heartbeat of what we do.”

In late August 2021, the group polled roughly 1,100 college freshman at two-year and four-year colleges, finding a massive divergence in expectations for their own futures and the country writ large; 92% of respondents said they were optimistic about their personal lives, but just 48% are optimistic about the future of the United States.

“That left my mind in a pretzel,” said Beschloss. “And I love that.”

For Mirramezani, who was born and raised in Iran before moving to the United States at age 14, that kind of polling hits close to home. “It’s very disheartening, as someone who moved out of an autocratic country,” he said. “And I think there is a role for public opinion research in figuring out where that’s coming from.” 

Their polling has also managed to break through into broader discussions of how young people navigate politics in their personal lives. In December, Generation Lab conducted polling finding that among college students, 71% of Democrats would not go out on a date with someone who voted for the opposing presidential candidate (in this case, former President Trump), while just 31% of Republicans said the same. 

That led to coverage in a wide swath of outlets, ranging from MSNBC and The Young Turks to Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld and even The Federalist

“I’m proud that our research can make it onto Morning Joe and Fox News in the same day,” Beschloss said. And if organizations can have access to hard data versus relying on self-appointed experts to tell them what young people think, then Generation Lab is making the mark it hopes to make.

“The concept of a Gen Z whisperer or like, whatever whisperer, is something that I would just love to not exist,” said Beschloss. “That is the core purpose of what we do, is to hold that space in the universe,” he added, before immediately wincing at his own choice of words. “That was hugely obnoxious.” 

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