College student political engagement levels indicate how well higher education is achieving its civic mission of developing active citizens concerned with public affairs and with addressing social problems. Voting rates are a direct measure of political engagement, and free, confidential reports of student voting rates are available to institutions from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement. NSLVE has developed a database of 2012 and 2014 voting and college student enrollment data from over 8 million students across 900 colleges and universities in the U.S. In addition to being used to research political engagement in higher education, NSLVE is used to inform campuses about their students' voting rates through customized reports showing voting rates by age, class level, field of study, and, when available, gender and race/ethnicity. Soon NSLVE will include data from the 2016 presidential election, and comparisons across presidential elections will provide insights into changes over time in voting patterns.
Data from the 2012 election align with recent national voting trends among eligible voters: women students voted more often than men (48 percent versus 40 percent, respectively), black students voted at a higher rate than other racial groups (55 percent), and older students were more likely to vote than younger ones. After statistically controlling for these, however, we are learning about more factors related to student turnout.
For instance, religiously affiliated institutions had statistically significantly higher voting rates in 2012 than nonreligious institutions, and campuses with ROTC programs had higher turnout rates than other campuses, although the reasons for this are not yet clear. Our qualitative research suggests that campus climate influences political engagement, and it may be that ROTC presence and religious affiliation shape campus climate and culture in ways that impact engagement. In short, institutional environments matter for political engagement, and we are beginning to see how campus leaders may be able to shape environments and practices to support political engagement.
Three ways to use student voting rate information
1. Inform campus leaders. Administrators and faculty will likely want to know political engagement levels of students on campus and how these compare to levels at peer institutions. Demographic traits, family income, and average SAT scores are examples of information that can help faculty and staff understand student backgrounds, and voting behavior is another way to inform them about the students they teach and interact with every day. For example, community engagement and service learning directors, faculty across disciplines, student affairs staff, institutional research directors, and others often appreciate knowing the composition of the student body.
2. Use it as a teaching tool. One purpose of higher education is for students to become knowledgeable citizens and understand how individuals can affect the public good. This requires students to reflect on their own role within a democracy. Students' own voting rates broken down by subgroups can be a rich tool for facilitating reflection on whose voices shape collective decision-making and how their actions can influence leadership, policy, and community values. Campus administrators could encourage faculty and teaching center staff to incorporate their campus voting rates into classroom conversations and curricula in order to situate students' learning in their own experiences.
3. Convene a dialogue. What are the reasons for low turnout? What are the implications of a group having less representation in politics? What can campuses do to encourage voting? These questions could be posed to the campus-at-large and discussed — ideally with a trained facilitator — to reflect on political power and how to support civic engagement of all students. Following the discussion, a task force could be charged with enacting change so concrete steps are taken based on the discussion.
In a particularly volatile presidential election season, students need skills and knowledge to think and talk about politics in ways that do not alienate others but also do not ignore the importance of current issues. Reports of students' own voting behavior offer an entry point into conversations about democracy and the electoral process using close-to-home, nonpartisan information. Campus-specific reports of student voting behavior are a powerful tool for informing campus leaders, spurring dialogue, and boosting student learning.
If you do not have a report of your student voting rates and would like one, join NSLVE by visiting www.activecitizen.tufts.edu/research/nslve. Joining is free and simply requires a signed authorization form allowing NSLVE access to select data from the National Student Clearinghouse.