How Involved Are College Students in the Election?

As the election approaches, colleges and universities cannot endorse one candidate over another, but they can certainly offer learning experiences, writes Nancy Thomas.

October 31, 2016

Will college students turn out to vote on Nov. 8? That’s a question we hear often, as stewards of the largest study on college student voting in the United States. Today, 18 million students attend American colleges and universities, and while quite a bit can happen over the next week, here’s what we know so far, as well as some advice for what we think should be happening on campuses now and, as importantly, after Election Day.

If 2012 and 2014 offer foreshadowing, college students may not turn out to vote at the same rates as older voters. Of the 8.5 million college and university students in our National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, only 45 percent voted in 2012. Less so younger students: only 41 percent of 18- to 24-year-old students voted in 2012. In 2014, the proportion dropped by more than half -- to 13 percent. Our Tisch College of Civic Life colleagues, CIRCLE, reported that 2014 had the lowest turnout of both college and noncollege youth in 40 years. This dip may reflect a downward trend.

But this year could be different. In 2015, almost 60 percent of first-year students surveyed by the Higher Education Research Institute said there is a “very good chance” that they will vote while in college. This fall, the Harvard Institute of Politics released polling results indicating that 63 percent of young people polled would vote. Last week, CIRCLE released data from its pre-election poll of millennials. Of the 288 college students (ages 18 to 34) surveyed, 76 percent identified themselves as “very or extremely likely to vote.” This is reminiscent of the primaries, when college students turned out for Bernie Sanders. And young people are paying “a lot” or “some” attention to the election.

Technical barriers to voting -- misunderstanding of laws allowing students to vote locally, hostility or reticence on the part of local election officials, restrictive voter identification laws, long lines at the polls and transportation concerns -- affect turnout. Students also face motivational barriers. Candidates, parties or partisan organizations are not contacting young people at levels commensurate with other age groups. Research suggests that this kind of contact informs and motivates voters. Indeed, Donald Trump’s message that the system is “rigged,” that Clinton is corrupt and that voting would be a tacit acceptance of an illegitimate system may deter some student voters.

Students may also be trending up in issue activism, as evidenced by their interest in Black Lives Matter, ending sexual assault on campus and other social action. This activism may trickle over to the election. Students at Liberty University have issued a statement criticizing their president, Jerry Falwell Jr., for supporting Trump. In August, the Harvard Republican Club denounced Donald Trump as the party’s nominee. At Cornell University, College Republicans endorsed Libertarian Gary Johnson.

At Furman University, students were upset by low turnout reflected in their NSLVE voting report, so they did some investigating. They discovered that local election officials were requiring Furman students living in dormitories to complete a questionnaire asking them for evidence of ties to the local community (such as where they socialize or attend church). Several students sued the local election officials and obtained a temporary restraining order prohibiting the use of such screening.

We also see evidence that colleges and universities are supporting nonpartisan political engagement, whether registering new voters, convening campus dialogues on public issues, joining national debate-watch efforts or signing up for intercampus voting competitions. And we know there is institutional-level interest given the fact that over 900 colleges and universities nationally have opted into our voting study, NSLVE. These are promising developments.

Despite such signs, we worry that registered students won’t show up to vote. While other research based on survey responses suggests that more than 80 percent of Americans who register to vote actually do vote, our study, which is based on merged enrollment and publicly available voting records, tells a different story for college students. In 2012, only 63 percent of students aged 18 to 24 who registered to vote actually voted. This suggests a drop-off of interest or commitment in the weeks before, or even the day of, the election.

Elections offer opportunities for students to establish habits of productive political discourse and enthusiasm for political activism and engagement, behaviors that should continue year-round, beyond an election season. While colleges and universities cannot endorse one candidate over another, they can offer learning experiences that examine the candidates’ policy proposals and perspectives.

Unfortunately, we’re hearing from campuses that talking about this election without sounding partisan has been difficult. Donald Trump’s taped comments about women clash with nationwide efforts to curb sexual assault on campus. The offensive statements Trump has made about Muslims, Mexicans, people with disabilities and other groups are antithetical to messages of equal opportunity and inclusion important to higher education institutions -- and to values supported by millennials, the most diverse generation in American history. And both candidates face challenges over trustworthiness and truthfulness, core values on college campuses. We hope that these dynamics will be seen as learning opportunities, not barriers.

Colleges and universities should not be impartial about student learning for and participation in democracy. Cultivating students for responsible stewardship of public affairs is a critical and longstanding part of higher education’s academic mission. A broken system with unpopular candidates will only be reformed by increased public participation, particularly for young people who may be disaffected but who have the most at stake.

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Nancy Thomas directs the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education and the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. NSLVE is both a service to colleges and universities -- providing more than 900 institutions nationally with tailored reports containing their students’ voter registration and voting rates -- and a database of 8.5 million student records, which is used to study college student political learning and engagement in democracy. If you have a story to share about how your institution is fostering political learning and engagement in the democracy, please share it at [email protected]. IDHE may feature it in an upcoming publication. You can also follow IDHE on Twitter @TuftsIDHE.


Nancy Thomas

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