The recent March for Our Lives at hundreds of locations around the globe rattled my cage, particularly as I stood in the middle of hundreds of thousands of protesters in Washington, DC. Had we finally found a way to increase activism, to get more and more people of all ages and stages involved in the well-being of their communities?
As I listened to the young speakers both over the loudspeakers and later on television, I wondered: Have the voices of high schoolers (and some even younger students) been ignited such that their fire will expand? These young people from Parkland, Fla. and beyond, seem capable of spreading their energy, their eloquence and their belief that “enough is enough” in terms of gun violence.
Here’s what worries me and I assume others: Can the efforts of these students to change gun laws to increase school safety be sustained?
Some movements falter; others have stickiness. As a product of the ‘60s, I experienced the rigor of our positions on civil rights and the Vietnam War and the need for women’s voices to be heard. We achieved some remarkable successes, though our work is still far from done.
All of this brings me to college campuses and my concerns about levels of student activism. Yes, there have been more protests in the past 24 months, spurred in part by efforts to eradicate sexual harassment and abuse. But are students actually engaging in the political process that other fundamental way: by exercising their right to vote?
Yes, many campuses have voter registration drives. Yes, there are personnel on some campuses to help students get absentee ballots. Yes, there are some young people running for office, particularly local officers. Yes, there seem to be more students interested in participating in politics.
But—that proverbial but …
The percentage of college student voting, though rising in recent years, is below 50%. Data from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University tells a story of which we should not be proud if we believe that our democracy depends on citizens’ exercising their right to vote.
The percentage of white students who vote increased between 2012 and 2016, as did the percentage of Hispanic and Asian students; the percentage of black students decreased. But more important than the increases/decreases per se are the actual percentages of students’ voting in any given year. In 2016, 53% of white students, 50% of black students, 46% of Hispanic students and 31% of Asian students voted. Yipes.
Ponder these statistics: 53% of students in social sciences voted, compared with 44% of students in STEM disciplines. Students at public four-year institutions (50%) vote more frequently than students at community colleges (46%) and private four-year colleges (47%). Voting at women’s colleges and minority-serving institutions colleges exceeded percentages at Hispanic-serving institutions. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) had the lowest percentage—a troubling statistic for many reasons.
Notably, the Tisch study does not include data for the percentage of voting by students at for-profit institutions.
Whether the data are complete and whether they fully capture all student voting (the data focus of the study is on presidential elections not other federal elections or state or local elections), we can still observe that there are differences in student voting rates at different colleges and universities.
What this means is that, if the data were actually available, we could compare and contrast colleges/universities on the basis of student voting rates. Indeed, students particularly interested in civic engagement and activism would be able to see which colleges/universities they were considering had very high voting rates and which had very low rates.
Now, we have many ways of rating and ranking colleges and universities. And there has been considerable debate about the quality of the existing measures used to compare one college/university to another. Assessment is a quagmire. For example, institutions with large endowments and higher admissions selectivity have higher rankings as calculated by US News than those with small endowments that also enroll high numbers of their applicants. Note that none of these are measures of educational quality unless one wants to say that big endowments and enrollment selectivity are surrogates for quality measures—assumptions I think are at once wrong and misguided.
Ratings (ostensibly different from rankings) are prepared by the U.S. Department of Education through the College Scorecard, and these data are also flawed on a myriad of levels. For starters, they look at retention and graduation rates based on first year-first time students, meaning that transfer students and their successes are not measured by the institutions that receive them or from which they departed. Odd, isn’t it?
We could wish for a day when all rankings/ratings are eliminated. But perhaps in the meantime, here’s one measure that could have meaning to a newly engaged youth population emboldened to make change and perhaps their parents and teachers: a comparison of voting rates among enrolled college/university students. I am not the first to reference the possibility of ratings based on voting rates (among other variables of civic engagement). But such ideas have not been embraced yet systematically.
For example, Northwestern University reportedly introduced voting during orientation in 2011, and voting by their enrolled students in presidential elections increased from 49% in 2012 to 64% in 2016. At East Tennessee State University, after concerted institutional and student efforts, voting in presidential elections by students from increased 39% to 47%. True, the numbers are still low but not as low as they were.
With the signs encouraging voting and political muscle at the March for Our Lives and the growing activism of high school students today, it seems that voting rates at colleges would matter to today’s K-12 students. If they had a choice of colleges—say between Harvard, Haverford, Hampton and University of Hawaii—how would they choose? Location? Price? Guidebook rankings? Programmatic offerings? Size? Reputation?
What if the voting rates among these colleges differed dramatically (a set of statistics we do not know at present across institutions)?
Local elections matter too
If one were to create a ranking/rating system of value to students and their families, we would want to look at more than federal election voting levels. Local and state voting matter; these elections reflect how communities govern and function, and in some of these elections, there are votes that affect students and justice directly: school board elections and election of judges. The latter two elections affect how our schools function (and the dollars allocated to education) and how legal disputes, including those related to protests, permitting, free speech, civil rights and voting rights, are resolved. Election of state and federal representatives matters too because these individuals can serve on education and budget committees.
Keep in mind too that in some states, the outcomes of local and state elections are decided by a small number of votes, given low voter turnout.
And if one wants proof that a vote matters (an issue for some who see no value to voting), just remember Bush v. Gore and “hanging chads.” Even if students are unaware of that electoral debacle given their ages, it is a part of history as to which much has been and should be read. For me, it is about more than politics; it is a story about our civic responsibility and how the right to have one’s vote count got trampled.
For college students, there is also the thorny issue of where they can, do and are allowed to vote and this problem should not be underestimated. And it cannot be dismissed by saying: Just vote; it does not matter where. That is not even true in presidential elections where a small number of votes can move the Electoral College one way or another.
Sadly, I have had experience with the difficulty students experience registering to vote in the town where they go to college, live, eat, study and work. I remember distinctly verbally sparring with the late and revered town clerk about the propriety of students registering to vote where they go to college. It was not pretty and was overheard by many. The counter-argument given: These students are not a part of our community; they are only here for a short period; they do not have the community interests are heart. State authorities had to be contacted.
Really? There are many people who move in and out of communities—who are not students. Even longstanding residents often do not vote; they use the schools; they work outside the locale. The students, on the other hand, are often engaged in the community, most especially those who work to help pay for their education; they perform internships in local businesses and or clinical rotations in local hospitals.
I wish I had known about the Supreme Court decision of Symm v. United States, 439 U.S. 1105 (1979), and yes, I was a law professor for decades and clearly not cognizant of voting rights.
Improve voting rates
There are concrete steps colleges and outside organizations can take to improve voting by students on college campuses. There can be voting drives. There can be debates held on campus. There can be courses dealing with electoral outcomes and even “pop-up” courses for credit that focus on particular election issues that are timely and pressing. There can be messaging about the role of voting in a democracy and the fights in other nations for the right to vote. There can be campus readings; there can be campus speakers; there can be systematic voter registration drives.
As the demography of America’s students changes to include more “non-trads” (students over age 24) and minority students, the power of the vote is all the more important so that the voices of the many are heard. And there are efforts that could be instituted legally to ease voter registration and the location where voters can rightly vote. Misinformation is, unfortunately, often used to ban voting by students. The above-referenced town clerk was dispensing bad information in my view. Or let’s say, he discouraged local registration with such rigor that students were left discouraged from pressing forward.
A rating of “voting” percentages broadly defined speaks volumes about an institution. It bespeaks campus culture, campus involvement, campus priorities. It sends a message about how activism and political activity will be received and handled and supported. In today’s world, that’s a pretty good reflection of citizenship and the role of educational institutions in preparing the leaders of tomorrow. Surely voting percentages are more important than the size of a college’s endowment or other indicators we currently use to measure the quality of colleges.
Can you imagine students, parents and teachers saying: “Before we decide on the best schools to which to apply, let’s look at their voter rating.” It could happen. And it should happen.
Voting. What is more important to the success of our democratic processes and how important is it to teach our future leaders to take their social responsibility to vote seriously? Not much except perhaps their personal health, their mental well-being, their love of learning and their openness to change and problem-solving.
Karen Gross is senior counsel with Finn Partners, former president of Southern Vermont College and author of Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students.