Students across the country faced voting barriers on Election Day

Efforts to suppress -- and protect -- the rights of student voters grow as they become a more influential bloc. Whether they voted in local elections or cast ballots on statewide issues, the elections last week showed the stakes are high.

Massive surge in college student voting in 2018

A new Tufts study documents that voter turnout among college students doubled in the last midterm election, which may likely influence the coming presidential election.

Clinton proposes $350 billion plan to make college affordable


Democratic front-runner seeks $350 billion over 10 years to encourage public 4-year colleges to be debt-free for tuition, and to make community colleges tuition-free. Plan also proposes cuts in interest rates and tougher regulation of for-profits.

O'Malley and Bush argue about merits of debt-free college plan

More Democratic presidential hopefuls weigh in on debt-free college, with one, Martin O'Malley, squaring off against Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential hopeful. What will Hillary Clinton do?

What People Are Saying About Debt-Free


Who is pushing which ideas -- and why.

How college leaders can help restore civil discourse after the election (opinion)

As leaders of higher education institutions, we along with many colleagues are giving tremendous thought to appropriate responses to the likely ferment that will come to our campuses and to our country after the U.S. presidential election, regardless of who wins. So many young adults are called to the polls this year, and in a recent survey on our campus, 97 percent of student respondents had registered to vote. This is a vital time to reinforce for a generation of students who we hope will become lifelong participants in democracy how our communities can effectively navigate deep conflict.

People of goodwill on campuses have legitimate and sincerely held views that lead them to favor one of the two major candidates. Some will be pleased with the outcome of the election, while others will be disappointed that the policy preferences they hold will not be those of whoever wins the presidency. For others, intellectual and emotional reactions may be more intense: ranging from a deep sadness to hopelessness.

These are ordinary parts of life in a democratic republic, part of the developmental process that we in higher education bring students to experience. In the case of William & Mary, the institution has navigated such experiences for centuries and through nearly every transition of presidential power in the nation. They offer opportunities for learning that are at the very core of citizenship.

We must also acknowledge that the results of the election will give rise, for some people, to concerns over their personal safety or be perceived as a deep existential threat to our country. These concerns are not far-fetched in an environment where we have seen armed conflict in the streets in different parts of the country, a rise in extremist discourse and even a foiled plot against the governor of Michigan.

The question is, how should we as leaders respond?

As an immediate measure, we should provide spaces for expressions of emotions, perspectives, hopes and fears. Particularly in the age of COVID-19, in which many find themselves isolated behind computer screens, it is important that we foster community and establish outlets for people to exhale and be heard.

But then we need to pivot quickly to facilitating constructive dialogue across ideological divides. There are several prerequisites to doing this successfully.

First, we hopefully have developed and promoted within our institutions meaningful institutional values around mutual respect, community and shared sacrifice. Those common objectives lay the groundwork for a willingness to listen and to build trust. We must repeat the essential work of communicating and encouraging those values annually, with every incoming and outgoing class.

Second, part of our mission must be to instill a common humanity -- to insist on our interdependence as members of our national community. We are truly all in this together, as COVID-19 is teaching us. An “us versus them” mind-set is a risk at any time of conflict and especially during a pandemic. To retreat into our respective redoubts and enclaves is to disclaim responsibility for our individual and institutional roles in community building.

Third, we must take the lead in reversing the trend toward dehumanization of our opponents. Dehumanization always accompanies deep societal polarization, and it blocks engagement and understanding in profound ways. Teaching members of our community that most of those with whom they disagree are sincere and of good faith can go a long way toward reversing this tendency. Yes, there are people of ill will who are not interested in everyone’s best interest or in constructive dialogue. The key to rehumanization, however, is to instill an appreciation that groups should not be defined by their worst actors.

Finally, civil discourse depends on the persistent pursuit of facts. In an era of perceived “fake news” and a preference for “alternative facts,” we must educate our students about information hygiene. The information overload feels unprecedented. Yet democracies have seen such effects of rapid technology change before. The 17th-century explosion of cheap print provides a lesson. As many people worried at the time, print technologies threatened to distribute error and misinformation widely to an increasingly literate society. Yet our nation’s constitutional resistance to censorship evolved alongside innovations (such as the printed errata) designed to correct erroneous information at scale. The intellectual practices to which American higher education is dedicated, such as evidence-based argument, evolved in parallel.

In the wash of misinformation today, it is paramount that those whom we educate practice evidence-based argument and become wise to falsehoods -- alert to missing data, disposed to question sources and to first verify, then trust. Thus prepared, this generation will help design the technological solutions we need to validate trustworthy information in the decades to come.

The two of us lead a university known as the alma mater of the nation and the first law school established in America, respectively. Strengthening democratic institutions through constructive engagement has long been part of William & Mary’s mission -- as has improving our democracy through every successive generation of graduating students. Each of us in higher education has to make good on our commitments to students, no matter our institutions’ history. If we double down on principles of meaningful civil discourse, evidence-based argument and rehumanization, we will be able to move forward together once this election has passed.

Katherine A. Rowe is president of William & Mary, and A. Benjamin Spencer is dean of William & Mary Law School.

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Colleges must support students in the wake of the election (opinion)

When my colleagues at New York Law School and I were planning how to support our student body this election season, 2016 wasn’t far from our minds. The Friday after that Election Day, we did something higher education leaders don’t often do. Rather than bring in experts to provide historical and legal context, we held a completely unstructured forum. It was an opportunity for all students -- across the political spectrum -- to offer their thoughts or feelings on the election’s outcome.

While Friday events typically bring a smaller crowd, on that day, the room was overflowing. Students waited in line for the chance to stand before their classmates and express their concerns.

One after the other, women, students of color, immigrants, children of undocumented parents, victims of rape and sexual assault, and many others all got up to express their frustration, reveal their vulnerabilities and commit to a plan of action as future lawyers. It was raw, emotional and among the most unexpectedly empowering events our law school has perhaps ever held.

As deans, we cannot preplan moments like that, but we can create the kind of climate that makes them possible: a climate of inclusion, safety and unity. And we can help students channel their feelings into meaningful action.

The lessons of 2016 are even more urgent now. There is a perfect storm brewing, making this year’s election unlike any other in modern memory. So how should we as educational leaders respond?

We need a framework to engage and support our students -- not just leading up to the election, not just on Nov. 3 and 4, but for the months and years afterward, no matter the election outcome and as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

The devastation caused by the pandemic, and the crisis in policing, have laid bare profound and systemic racial and economic inequities in the United States. Add to that a leadership crisis, deep political polarization in Washington and a contentious Supreme Court nomination process.

The stakes have become existential for our students -- far beyond political and policy differences. This election is about their individual identities and identities as Americans, the question of whether there can be a peaceful transfer of power, and their basic need for safety and security. Sadly, the pressures placed on our students, many of whom are largely learning at home, struggling for connection, have never been greater.

Responding to Difficult and Uncertain Circumstances

It very well could be the case that no clear winner emerges when the polls close on Nov. 3; that the election results in many places will be met with legal challenges informed by allegations of voter suppression, ballot tampering and fraud; that mass protests on either side of the political divide will occur; and that there is at least some chance that a Supreme Court with a newly appointed ninth justice could decide the election.

Here’s what I am doing at my own institution in response to these difficult and uncertain circumstances, and what I recommend others consider:

  • First, develop strategic ways to deploy your administrative teams, faculty colleagues, student leaders and trusted alumni to offer student support. Given that many of us are operating as hybrids, or completely remotely, your faculty may be in the best position to check in with students, take the pulse of the institution and address key issues tied to the election. I am teaching my own class -- State and Local Government Law -- through the lens of election issues with COVID-19 response and recovery, while addressing systemic racism and the need for police reform. A number of my colleagues are doing similar work in their classrooms.
  • Second, check in with every student affinity group, get their ideas and inputs, and then consider appropriate outreach to individual students you know to be particularly vulnerable. Consider engaging a mental health professional if your campus doesn’t have one. As an independent law school, we have hired our own clinical social worker.
  • Third, create ways for students to process history as it unfolds. We’ve designed a broad and ever-expanding slate of substantive programming on election-related topics. Events began in early October and will extend to at least spring break. We’re also offering mini courses on the 2020 Census and redistricting process and on anticorruption law and government oversight. We’re making poll worker and poll watcher training available to all community members, and no classes are scheduled for Election Day, giving everyone the opportunity to vote and engage, regardless of their location or political affiliation.
  • Fourth, give students the chance to speak their minds -- not only in their classes and in formal programming but also in a broad and open forum. We’re planning another postelection student forum as in 2016, but this time, of course, on Zoom.
  • And, finally, adapt your long-term plans to reflect this time of rapid change. We will soon update our strategic plan, issued just last year, as well as our diversity, equity and inclusion plan, to address the new challenges and opportunities arising from the election. This includes being a key asset to New York City in its post-COVID recovery, as well as being a forceful advocate for antiracism and equity nationally.

Today’s current moment is about more than just providing students an education inside the classroom. It’s about coming together to support and stand up for one another when so many of the values we take for granted are at risk.

Anthony W. Crowell is dean and president of New York Law School in Lower Manhattan. This piece is adapted from his recent address to the nation’s law deans at the Association of American Law Schools and Law School Admission Council.

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A historian describes how Joe Biden was a regular, not radical, student of the 1960s (opinion)

When Joe Biden was in college from 1961 to 1965, he was not Radical Joe but Regular Joe. This finding in the front-page New York Times story on Oct. 18 was consistent with Biden’s explanation that “Other people marched. I ran for office.” As one college friend recalled, “occupying a dean’s office, or something like that, was not his style.”

There’s nothing shocking about Biden’s recollection, even though some GOP strategists now want to cast Biden as far left. That image does not square with the realities of his past or present. Joe Biden was “Joe College.”

Biden’s biography complicates the story of his own political path as well as upsets the popular image often associated with “going to college in the ’60s.” Slogans such as “days of rage” and “the campus in crisis” have emphasized violent protests by angry student demonstrators. But the calendar was crucial. Biden was in college at a quiet time on a quiet campus, the University of Delaware. Even at the most radical campuses, student protests did not become volatile until 1967 or even later.

Ironically, the most extreme cases of campus violence of the early 1960s involved traditional students, many of whom were members of fraternities and sororities. The violence included throwing bricks at federal marshals or burning parked cars to protest racial desegregation at some flagship state universities in the South. That was most evident in student opposition to James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi in September 1962.

When Biden was an undergraduate, student activism dealt primarily with immediate concerns such as overcrowding in lecture halls and dormitories. Earnest students, regardless of political party, were upset by “the impersonality of the multiversity” -- which meant having to wait in long lines for course registration, meetings with an academic adviser or getting meals in the campus dining hall.

The most publicized political protest of 1963-64 was the Free Speech Movement (known as the FSA) at the University of California, Berkeley. When campus administrators banned student groups from setting up tables to hand out political brochures on campus, it was the one issue that united all students -- left, right and center. Young Republicans and Students for a Democratic Society put aside political differences. They channeled their collective anger into organized resistance against deans and campus staff. All student groups felt their rights to a campus forum had been violated.

Recollections about Biden’s political views in college frequently emphasize his dress. The point seems to be that since he wore Weejuns and a sport coat, he, of course, must have been conservative. In fact, his clothing provided no clue to his political orientation, then or now. To test out this claim, it’s useful to look at archival photographs from student protests at Berkeley in spring 1966. A delegation of students staged an antiwar demonstration at the university’s Charter Day ceremonies. The photograph shows that these antiwar student activists were overwhelmingly white. The young men had neatly trimmed hair and wore button-down-collar shirts, with many wearing neckties. The women who hoisted protest signs wore skirts, dresses and blouses, some with Peter Pan collars. And both men and women who were protesting the war did wear Weejuns.

Biden was mainstream and moderate, characteristics that put him in the heart of campus life in his era. Student protest was not always rebellious in clothing and appearance. Activists were usually well behaved in the mid-1960s. If Biden is designated as a collegiate figure of his era, then the images of violent student demonstrations need to be tempered by the reminder that most of the events associated with the '60s really did not take place until the '70s. For example, the shootings at Kent State University and later at Jackson State University took place in May 1970 -- six years after Biden graduated from college.

What, then, is a reasonable estimate of the legacy of the early 1960s on college students nationwide? Turning from Biden’s quiet University of Delaware to another moderate state university, the president of the student body at Penn State University in 1966 described his male classmates as:

… passive, conscientious, law abiding, responsible and [socially] ultraconservative. He is content to study, date, and perform the rituals of existence … The extensive attention captured by this rebellion often obscured the reality that at Penn State and most other institutions, most students took no part in protest marches, sit-ins, flag burnings, building occupations or other activities favored by campus dissidents. As administrators and students came to realize, the passive majority often embraced the goals, if not the methods, of the activist minority.

The fact that Biden was a regular Joe, not radical Joe, did not mean that he was not influenced by dramatic social and political events of the 1960s. It does suggest that he had the potential to shape these changing concerns into a political platform that can still have resiliency for mainstream Americans today. His perspective and platform can provide the balance between the far left and the far right in the 2020 presidential campaign.

John R. Thelin is University Research Professor at the University of Kentucky and author of Going to College in the Sixties, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2018.

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Movement for no class on Election Day gains steam

Student government leaders and national get-out-the-vote organizations say classes on Election Day are barriers to voting. They want a designated holiday instead and classes replaced with voter engagement efforts.

Colleges should help students get the information they need to vote in the upcoming election (opinion)

A chaotic year of plague, social unrest and significant change on campuses is also a year of extremely important national and state elections. While colleges must avoid partisanship, they should do everything they can to make certain that students (and staff) get all the information they need to participate and have their opinions registered and their votes counted.

This election year, students are going to miss the excitement of political meetings, speeches, debates and the like on their campuses, but they must at least be able to vote. Unfortunately, however, our traditional registration and voting systems are designed for people who live and vote from the same place over the years, which is one of the reasons why students traditionally vote at much lower levels than older people. (And that, in turn, is one of the reasons why their needs are taken less seriously as taxes on adults are cut and tuitions soar due to drops in state funding.)

Students often are not registered at their current address and do not know when and how to obtain absentee ballots, which are readily available in some states and quite limited elsewhere. Many students also have no idea where they will actually be living when Election Day comes, since campuses may open up and then shut down if there is a second wave of the pandemic in the fall. Many students also have underlying health conditions that make in-person voting very risky during the pandemic. But they should not be denied the right to vote.

In the last presidential election, more than half of college students did not vote. An estimated 48 percent of students voted compared to more than 70 percent of senior citizens -- a serious imbalance that ultimately means less attention to the needs of students and their colleges. Had more students voted, they might have changed the outcomes in some of our key swing states.

As a professor, I know that many of our students are deeply concerned about issues shaping the future and think that they should have more of a voice about those issues. They’ve often participated in the enormous waves of protests this year, but elections are the way that all citizens can express their views through the secret ballot and exercise real power.

I urge all college presidents, chancellors, boards of trustees and faculty leaders to take specific positive actions to foster full student access to voting. Individual professors could be very helpful in informing and reminding students of the key requirements, dates and deadlines. Providing information and guidance about voting in no way drags campuses into partisan politics because it has no connection with any specific party. It is simply about empowering students to exercise their democratic rights.

In fact, while our classrooms must be protected from partisan activity, our colleges were designed in part to foster an informed democracy. Nonpartisan support for student voting is simply an effort to make real the rights of all students, who deserve to be heard in our democracy.

Even in more typical election years, students often get too absorbed in their studies to keep track of key deadlines -- like professors, they tend to get busy, become absentminded and forget. In addition, absentee voting is complex in a number of our states. And many students change addresses and do not inform the registration offices in time to make official changes.

But certain features of our electoral system are worse than normal this year in the midst of the pandemic. Some students will be unpredictably moving this fall and perhaps again before Nov. 3 to or from their campuses. If we are not organized to help them, many students will lose their ability to vote.

A Series of Notifications

Colleges and universities lack many things that would be valuable in encouraging political participation this fall, but they have one feature that is both absolutely crucial and virtually free: they can use their existing communication systems to send students a sequence of alerts that educate and assist them in voting. A series of notifications could provide urgent voting information, deadlines and reminders (which all professors know are necessary).

  • The first notification at the beginning of the fall should spell out for students the process, the deadlines and the critical first step of registering or checking their registration. (While that’s not essential in states where registration takes place on voting day, it’s still a good idea anyway and essential for mail voting.)
  • The second notification, in mid-September, should repeat the registration information and underline the deadlines. In some states, those will occur about a month before the Nov. 3 election. It should also list the requirements for obtaining ballots for mail-in voting. The relevant online forms from the state election office should be attached.
  • The third notification should be in early October and should provide information and connections to forms for applicants to vote by mail. In states where postage is required, colleges should provide it or make it easily available for purchase, as students send few snail-mail letters.
  • The fourth notification should come in mid-October and remind students about the Nov. 3 election, tell them it is time to mail their ballots since serious Post Office delays and confusion are likely, and give information for polling places near the campus and student residences. Such location information could be sent again Nov. 2.

Each campus could provide an information number for the local board of elections and, if your campus has it, the campus government relations or community relations office, giving an opportunity for students and faculty members to raise questions and concerns about the adequacy of polling places. Campuses should collaborate with local voting officials if more facilities are needed for in-person voting.

Campuses might also consider going beyond all this and providing students access to basic campaign information. They could ask the political science department to develop an informative email and a website that would connect students to the campaign websites of the major national, state and local candidates of all parties on the ballot and to free media sites that cover the campaigns. That would enable students to get up-to-date on the candidates’ positions and party platforms and, thus, make more informed judgments. In some states with important ballot propositions, such connections could be especially helpful.

All of this would have a negligible cost and would treat all political parties and candidates equally. It would be good to also send copies of these emails to campus staff members, particularly those who have recently joined or have moved.

Campuses should use their information system to remind students each month about the deadlines and the requirements they need to meet to vote. Those with significant out-of-state enrollments should offer a connection to a nonpartisan national information website, such as the U.S. Election Assistance Commission or USA.gov/voting. There is no reason a student living away from home should lose his or her rights.

I know our higher education leaders strongly support the democratic rights and responsibilities of their students. They know it is important for voices from their colleges to be heard in the state capitals and Washington as both students and institutions struggle in these exceptionally difficult times. I hope that campus leaders take these simple and easy steps to help students participate fully in this extraordinary year.

Gary Orfield is Distinguished Research Professor of Education, Law, Political Science and Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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