Student political movements are a worldwide phenomenon. Issues that have sparked college and university activists have ranged from government policies to university reform to narrower campus matters, such as housing. Thus student political activism varies widely.

Generally, students in developing countries have had a greater impact on their nations than have students in the industrialized world; these students are among a small number of articulate and literate people in their societies. Student movements tend to oppose the established order. More often than not, they are leftist and nationalist. However, examples of right-wing activism include strong student support for Islamic fundamentalism in the contemporary Muslim world.

In modern history, an early example of direct student impact on politics came in the German nationalist upsurge of the mid-19th century. University-based movements spread both the ideology and the activism that eventually resulted in a unified German nation. Similar developments took place in Italy. The early-20th-century university-reform movement of Latin American students transformed the universities and involved students directly in academic governance. They also stimulated liberal and radical social action in many South American nations. In the United States the period of the Depression of the 1930s brought the first major upsurge of student activism. These movements were almost exclusively liberal or radical in orientation. They focused both on foreign-policy issues (such as the rise of fascism in Europe or opposition to U.S. rearmament) and on the domestic crises engendered by the Depression. U.S. students, like those in most countries, tended to take strong moral stands on the issues.

A significant period for student activism worldwide was the decade of the 1960s. Major student movements occurred in many countries, including the United States, Europe, South America, and Asia. The issues varied, but many movements were stimulated by student dissent from political establishments that had limited parliamentary opposition. In West Germany, the expression "extra parliamentary opposition" was coined. The student movement became the major focus of antiestablishment sentiment. The West German students also forced from the government a university-reform law that gave students direct participation in academic governance. In 1968 in France, students and others nearly caused the downfall of President Charles de Gaulle. In Mexico City, also in 1968, a prolonged student strike was suppressed by the government, leaving hundreds dead.

Two issues fueled the most important U.S. student protest movement—student support for civil rights for blacks and Vietnam War opposition. Led by SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), student protests focused on the plight of blacks in the U.S. South and the growing Vietnam conflict. Tactics became increasingly radical as the U.S. war effort grew. Some U.S. student elements (and some of those abroad) eventually veered to terrorism. Incidents of official overreaction culminated in 1970 with the killing of students at Kent State University and Jackson State by armed authorities. The nation's universities were virtually shut down by a protest strike.

During the 1960s students were also demanding free speech on campus (notably at Berkeley, Calif. ; see Free Speech Movement) and changes in curricula and in university administration and regulation of student life. The student movement contributed to an end of the war in Vietnam by arousing public opinion. However, it probably left its greatest mark by changing the cultural norms of the nation—in terms of attitudes toward music, lifestyles, and the role of women and minorities in society.

In the United States and Europe, student activism declined after the 1960s. It remained important in such countries as South Korea, however, and in China, where student prodemocracy demonstrators were massacred by the army in 1989 (see Tiananmen Square Massacre). In South Korea throughout the 1990s students engaged in various political actions, including support in 1996 of reunification with North Korea.

There was a resurgence in campus activism in the United States during the second decade of the 21st century. The Occupy Wall Street movement (2011) against social and economic inequality and the anti-racist Black Lives Matter protests (2013; beginning at the University of Missouri) both sparked further marches, some of which turned violent. In fact, there were more than 160 student protests in the U.S. over the course of the 2014 fall semester alone. Other protests involved demands for changes in college tuition and student loans. Technology added to the reach of the protests (and sometimes took the place of them). In 2016 it was reported that 75% of millennials used social media to discuss issues they cared about and that 58% of Americans considered "tweeting information about issues an effective form of advocacy or support." Student activism grew (along with protests by a diverse group of nonstudents) with the presidential campaign of 2016. A survey conducted by UCLA in Los Angeles at that time found that interest in political and civic engagement had reached the highest levels since the study began 50 years before.