College Students, Campus Culture, and Political Participation

By Caroline Harper

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Since 1996, the number of Americans eligible to vote and those who cast votes in presidential elections has continued to increase according to the US Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. Scholars contend that as educational attainment increases, so does political participation. Engaged students committed to the ideals of American democracy have led the way in campus and community engagement that contributed to national policies that still exist.

Campus Culture and Political Participation

By 2026, a projected 22.6 million students will enroll in US colleges and universities, but does presence on a college campus translate to differences in political participation among young adults? College campuses provide a multitude of opportunities for young adults to interact with diverse populations, exchange ideas, join organizations, and develop skills to think critically about the world we live in.

In 1960, four freshmen attending North Carolina A&T (The A&T Four) chose to “sit-in” at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro. As the movement gained national attention, Woolworth’s desegregated within six months and similar movements across the country created shifts in attitudes that resulted in the passage of federal legislation addressing civil rights and social inequalities.

So, how politically active are college students and do all young adults head to the polls?

The level of engagement among college students compared to their counterparts in broader contexts has warranted increased studies exploring their impact. During the 2016 presidential election, only 16 percent of all voters between the ages of 18–29 participated. In contrast, nearly 70 percent of college students who participated in the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement confirmed that they completed the registration process and cast votes.

During the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, college seniors represented the largest share of undergraduate voters and students pursuing a master’s degree represented the largest share of students enrolled in graduate and certificate programs. Women and social science majors continue to represent the cornerstone of political engagement on college campuses.

Although college students represent the largest percentage of young voters, an interesting shift emerged when looking at participation among ethnic groups from 2012 to 2016: the share of White student voters declined while the percentage of Hispanic and Asian students who cast votes increased. For the first time since 2008, the percentage Black college students who cast votes declined in 2016 — consistent with the decline of Black voters in the broader context.

Across all ethnic groups, the largest share of those who chose not to vote did so because they did not like the candidates or the campaign issues proposed before the election. While some opted not to vote, others chose to let their voices be heard by casting votes for third-party candidates. Among Black voters, however, feelings that their vote would not matter and dislike of the candidate or issues tied as the most important reasons cited for not voting in 2016.

Does political participation occur at the same level across all postsecondary institutions? Not quite. Political participation occurs at higher rates among students who attend public four-year universities compared to students who attend private four-year universities and two-year colleges. Institutional level voting behavior reflected shifts in voting behavior among student populations from 2012–2016. As voting participation increased among women college students, an increase also occurred among students who attended women’s colleges. Along the same lines, as Hispanic and Asian student voting increased in 2016, political participation among students attending Hispanic serving institutions (HSI’s) and Asian American & Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISI’s) increased as well. While political participation increased among Hispanic and Asian student voters, the decline in Black student voters was also reflected among students who attended Predominantly Black Institutions (PBI’s) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s).

Avenues and Opportunities on College Campuses

So, what drives college students to the polls? Across the board, college students and young voters want to be involved in making change. They have strong opinions about qualifications associated with the presidency and they cast votes in support of candidates they believe will make changes that move the country in a positive direction.

In a 2010 study conducted by Nienmi and Hanmer, factors such as battleground state residence (temporary or permanent), distance from college campus to hometown, and campus transfer had impacts on political participation. Studies exploring college student participation in local contexts provide additional insight into their potential influence in national elections.

In recognition of college students’ impact as a viable voting bloc, the 1998 Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act encouraged postsecondary institutions to participate in voter registration activities and mandated good-faith efforts to provide registration forms to students.

Among college students, studies have confirmed that traditional strategies such as classroom discussions related to voter registration, political party outreach, and campus-based activities associated with national programs increase political efficacy, competence and participation.

By 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act recognized electronic communication as viable avenues to provide voter registration information to students on college campuses. Since the 2008 presidential election, college student voters have confirmed that receipt of social media updates and emails containing voter registration information had a contextualized understanding of campaign platforms and the steps necessary to cast votes.

Considerations and Next Steps

Although political participation among America’s college students is promising, there are still hurdles that must be addressed in the broader context. In 2016, young adults represented the largest proportion of Americans who did not register to vote. So, what happened to those who opted not to register or cast a vote? The Current Population Survey, conducted by the US Census Bureau, confirmed that the most common reason young adults did not participate was because they simply weren’t interested in this particular election or in politics in general. While a number were not interested in politics, the failure to meet registration deadlines and “other” (reason not listed in the survey) issues were cited as factors that prohibited their participation in the election.

Earlier this year, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center confirmed that while 18 to 29-year-old voters believe voting is important; it is not convenient or exciting. In states such as New Hampshire, Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, advocates contend that new strategies including strict voter ID requirements, revised residency requirements and tax penalties intentionally discourage college student political participation.

What steps should be taken to increase participation?

To encourage participation and ensure access to the polls, the following steps should be considered:

  • Foster a culture of civic engagement by introducing students to aspects of civic duty and engagement during new student orientation or welcome week activities.
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage in meaningful conversations about political processes with faculty and staff. Particular attention should be given to addressing “what-if” scenarios, including what to do if absentee ballot hasn’t arrived, when to use provisional ballots, and where to file complaints if violations occur.
  • Encourage young voters (especially first-time voters) to be mindful of deadlines and register early! Whether students choose to vote in their local jurisdiction or in their home state, registering as early as possible allows plenty of time to resolve problems before elections.
  • Provide (and publicize) a centralized location where students can find comprehensive information related to local voting including registration laws, residency requirements, identification, accessibility, and dress code.

College students have long been characterized as the catalysts for change in American politics. As such, we must ensure that voter registration processes and legislation in all states preserve their right to vote. Furthermore, multiple channels must be used to provide meaningful and engaging information related to candidates and their platforms.

Caroline Harper is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Howard University and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. Dr. Harper’s research examines the intersection of civic engagement, social inequalities, and public policy in urban areas.




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