Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.
– Chinese proverb
Volume 75 | Issue 5
September 2007

Civic Engagement and the College Student: How campus community builders can facilitate re-engagement 

Kim Savage

On July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment was ratified and gave U.S. citizens 18 to 20 years old the right to vote. And in the 1972 presidential election that followed, more than 50 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds exercised this right (Young Voter Turnout, n.d). In the years following that first election, the percentage of this age group that cast a ballot declined, hitting an all-time low of only 35.6 percent in the 1996 presidential election (Young Voter Turnout, n.d.). Today, however, a change seems to be on the way, exemplified in the 2004 presidential election that saw 46.7 percent of young voters exercise their right (Young Voter Turnout, n.d.). And many believe that with a little push, 18- to 24-year-olds could be participating in record numbers for the 2008 presidential election.

Civic engagement

Levine and Cureton (1998) raised awareness of the dichotomy between the hopes and fears of contemporary college students. The results of their Undergraduate Survey conducted in 1993 demonstrated that students were optimistic about their future careers, financial success, relationships, and ability to contribute to society. Yet despite a rise in activism and participation in altruistic pursuits, the college-aged members of Generation X exhibited a collective feeling that the existing political climate ignored and even dissuaded their input. Due to the feeling of disengagement from politics, 18- to 24-year-olds more often volunteered for community service and failed to become involved in other civic activities that are vital to the health of democracy.

Fifteen years later, studies show that this dynamic has not changed, although civic engagement is on the rise. The 2006 Freshman Study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute found that college students are "discussing politics more than they have in 40 years, and fewer describe their views as middle-of-the-road," as one-third of freshmen claim to talk about politics regularly compared to just one-fourth in 2004 (Lipka, 2007, ¶ 1). According to the study, a record 23.9 percent of freshmen are conservative and 28.4 percent are liberals, the most since 1975 (Lipka, 2007, ¶ 1). Thomas Ehrlich, co-director of the Political Engagement Project at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, commented on the increase:

Students are increasingly seeing that major public policy issues affect their lives. This is not just tuition and student loans. Health care, energy, the war in Iraq—these issues have direct impact on their lives, and they know it. (Lipka, 2007, ¶ 4)

With the realization that issues directly affect their lives, college students also are more outspoken with their views.

Seventy-three percent of freshmen surveyed said they supported a national health care plan, and 77.9 percent said the federal government was not doing enough to control environmental pollution. Nearly half said affirmative action should be abolished in college admissions and undocumented immigrants should be denied access to public education. (Lipka, 2007, ¶ 5)

This increased interest in political issues has not phased college students’ willingness to lend a helping hand as students are volunteering for community service over political engagement. The Freshman Study (2006) found that two-thirds of freshmen considered "helping others in difficulty" important and a personal goal; and students at historically black colleges and universities had even higher response rates, with 76.5 percent of freshmen planning to do community service while in college (Lipka, 2007, ¶ 12). The findings of the 11th Biannual Youth Survey on Politics and Public Service by the Harvard University Institute of Politics (2006) were similar, showing that 51 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds volunteered for community service and only 19 percent participated in government, political, or issues-related organizations.

This preferred interest in community volunteerism over political engagement could be related to the lack of faith 18 to 24-year-olds have in the government. The Harvard Institute of Politics (2006) shows that only 31 percent of college students trust the president, 29 percent trust Congress, and 28 percent trust the federal government to do the right thing the majority of the time.

Another contributor to the lack of civic engagement is that 75 percent of college students see the priorities of the elected officials as much different than their own (Harvard Institute of Politics, 2006). Nathan Helsabeck, a graduate student at the University of Illinois–Chicago and former Green Party candidate for state representative, agreed:

I think that young people are turned off by politics, because they don’t see the value in it, and they don’t see how politics impacts their lives. The Republicans and Democrats are completely out of touch with what matters to young people and are also so inaccessible that they feel like a distant abstraction. (personal communication, February 20, 2007)

So while 18- to 24-year-olds do see the necessity of politics, the skepticism of the system may be holding them back.

Voting trends

In the United States, as in many countries around the world, suffrage was not originally extended to all citizens. The right to vote for women and minorities was approved only after long, hard battles. It seems as though with each generation, the youth of America become more disconnected with the past, possibly leading to the decline in voter turnout of 18- to 20-year-olds since the group got the vote in 1971.

Low voter turnout is not limited to the United States. Concern about youth voters also has been expressed in Europe. In 2003, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe voted to implement a revised European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Local and Regional Life (Revised European Charter, 2003). Through this charter, the Council of Europe recognizes the importance of education and access to public participation in developing viable economic and social systems. The charter is based on three principles: participation of young people in local and regional life must constitute part of a global policy of citizens’ participation in public life; local and regional authorities are convinced that all sectoral policies should have a youth dimension; and the principles and various forms of participation advocated in this charter apply to all young people without discrimination (Revised European Charter, 2003).

The United States Census Bureau found that only one in five of 18- to 20-year-olds voted in 2002, a midterm election year, the low point in the voting decline (Kirby, 2006). This compares to 66 percent of those over 24 years old who voted in 2004 (Kirby, 2006). However, voter turnout for young adults seems to be increasing. The Harvard University Institute on Politics (2007) found that since 2000, "voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States grew approximately 31 percent—from 36 percent in the 2000 presidential election to 47 percent in the 2004 election" (¶ 3).

Despite the increase from prior midterm and presidential elections, many find it disturbing that young adults do not participate in the electoral process in great numbers. The National Association of Secretaries of State (1999) attributes the low voter turnout among youth in the United States to a decline in civics education in the schools.

Sara Lyman, a student at the College of DuPage, agrees that young people are uneducated about politics. "None of my friends voted, and I think they didn’t for the same reason I didn’t. We were all really uneducated and felt like there was no reason for us to vote," she said (personal communication, February 19, 2007).

Therefore, universities around the United States, and world, have an opportunity to politically engage their students.

Developing learning outcomes

Campus community builders, including union and student affairs professionals, can be an active part of the process to re-engage college student in politics. According to the Role of the College Union (1996):

Recognition of generational changes and emerging trends must be integral factors in designing experiences to meet the dynamic needs of the student population and fulfill the commitment of offering students first-hand experiences in citizenship and educating them in leadership, social responsibility, and values.

To engage students, campus community builders must provide an education that will inspire civic responsibility while in college and beyond. It is not sufficient to provide a blank landscape hoping that students will stumble upon the answers that will propel them into the future (Keeling, 2006). Rather, programming, services, and facilities must function like an interactive roadmap that will guide students through an environment designed to address intentional learning outcomes based on the students’ choices and interactions (Keeling, 2006).

According to the Council for the Advancement of Standards’ (2006) Frameworks for Assessing Learning and Development Outcomes (FALDOs), "the formal education of students consists of the curriculum and the cocurriculum and must promote student learning and development that is purposeful and holistic." Thus, the out-of-classroom experience provided by union and student affairs professionals is just as important to the development of a student as a formal classroom education.

For developing competency for civic engagement, emphasis on leadership development, social responsibility, collaboration, clarified values, and appreciation of diversity are vital. Unique sets of learning outcomes can be created to assess the student employment experience, the student leadership experience, and various programmatic or service contacts with the general student population. Use of the FALDOs can greatly assist the creation of assessment criteria for the competencies for civic engagement.

Since most students will experience only one presidential and one mid-term election during their college years, the efforts by campus community builders to educate new voters must be ongoing. Today, as the United States enters into a new presidential election cycle and other countries ease into new administrations, is a prime opportunity for developing a new cohort of citizens who value and exercise their responsibility for participating in the democratic process.

Campus initiatives to engage young voters

Initiatives to improve voter education and engagement in the political process have been implemented throughout the United States. From national coalitions to campus events, success in boosting interest in the politics requires a long term commitment to development of comprehensive, intentionally designed programs. While some of these programs may only be implemented during an election year, debate forums, voter registration drives, and many more can be continuous efforts on campus.

Voter registration drives

Voter registration is the first step to getting the 18- to 24-year-olds to the polls. Many colleges set up tables around campus in high-volume areas, such as the University of Southern California, which invited freshmen to register during welcome week (Tried and True, 2005, p. 8).

However, some colleges and universities are spicing up voter registration. At Saint Anselm College, all students who registered to vote were entered into a lottery to win one week of parking in the college president’s parking spot (Tried and True, 2005). The University of Utah set up multiple "open mic" registrations where those who registered to vote were invited to share their political beliefs and concerns (O’Grogan, 2004, ¶ 2). For the 2002 elections, the University of Virginia had a goal to register 2002 students to vote. After a month, "On the final day of the drive, crews stayed out until 3 a.m. to recruit their last voter, bringing their total to 2002" (Amirhadji, 2002, ¶ 4). Rutgers University tried to appeal to a large audience by sponsoring a "Vote-a-Palooza/Rock the Vote" where many local bands
performed and local politicians made appearances in an effort to register voters (Shokh, 2004, ¶ 1).

National Education for Women’s Leadership

The National Education for Women’s Leadership (NEWL) program addresses learning outcomes of civic and historical knowledge and understanding the principles of government. NEWL originated at Rutger’s University in 1991, as part of the Center for American Women and Politics. The program, designed to attract and train college women for roles in political leadership, has grown into a national network with partners in many states. The keystone of the Rutgers program is a five-day residential institute during the summer for students from New Jersey to discuss public policy issues. The curriculum includes women’s history, networking with women government leaders, leadership skill development, and use of technology to expand political knowledge. More than 400 students have participated since its inception. As the NEWL Development Network has expanded nationwide, similar seminars are offered throughout the United States by network partners. Any unit within a nonprofit college or university can apply to be a network partner (NEWL, 2007).

Debate forums

In October 2006, Lewis University offered a forum where candidates from all of the state and national races were invited to staff information tables about their campaigns and distribute literature. Voter registration was held in conjunction with the event. "The students thought the event was enjoyable overall. Many of the students [and candidates alike] appreciated the opportunity to meet candidates in a more informal, one-on-one format," said James Rago, assistant professor of biology and an organizer of the event (personal communication, April 25, 2007).

Colleges and universities that are unable to have the candidates debate, could use alternative means of having the issues heard by students. At Birmingham-Southern College, representatives from the College Democrats and College Republicans debated issues surrounding the national election (Tried and True, 2005).

During the 2004 campaign, the University of Southern California played host to the California Democratic Candidate Debate in conjunction with CNN and the Los Angeles Times. This provided the university with much opportunity to organize voter awareness activities around this time period, including debates between student groups and
candidate support rallies (Francis, 2004, ¶ 12).

Hoping to reach a diverse audience, Harvard University held a Jock the Vote debate in which six athletes from various sports teams researched and debated political issues (McGinn, 2004, ¶ 1).

Debate viewings

For the 2004 election, Birmingham–Southern College organized debate watches for all three major debates during the campaign. This provided students with a place to watch the debates as well as discuss their thoughts on the issues immediately following the debate (Tried and True, 2005).

Stanford University’s nonpartisan group Stanford in Government sponsored an event for the campus community to come and watch the final debate between Pres. George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry in the last election (Ha, 2004, ¶ 1).

Phone banks

Reminding students to vote is as important as getting them registered. At the University of Utah, volunteers worked in phone banks for the two days leading up to the election, calling every student on campus just to remind them to vote (Tried and True, 2005). Volunteers at Clark Atlanta University not only made phone calls to remind students to vote, but also obtained a voter list from the city and called local citizens to remind them as well (Tried and True, 2005). Much like phone banks, some institutions, like Birmingham–Southern College, sent out e-mails to remind students of voter registration deadlines (Tried and True, 2005). And at Rutgers University, the university president e-mailed students and staff to encourage voter participation (Reuter, 2004, ¶ 10).


In an effort to educate potential voters about the issues, institutions often put together literature on different subject matter to make available to the campus community. At Clark Atlanta University, "Students used the exhibition halls surrounding the university’s library to post literature intended for voter education," including information on health care, the war, and education (Tried and True, 2005, p. 7).

Harvard University "created a pamphlet containing issue and candidate information as well as useful Web links, and distributed them to each room in student dorms" (Tried and True, 2005, p. 10).

Visual aids

The St. Lawrence University Democracy Matters Chapter recently illustrated the expected cost of the 2008 presidential campaign under the United States’ current system by stringing 1,000 bills, each representing $1 million, across the atrium of the college union (Griffin, 2007).

Based on its new civic engagement project, Saint Anselm College made temporary tattoos, pens,T-shirts, posters, and door hangers with the "Count Me In!" logo to increase voter awareness (Tried and True, 2005, p. 6).

Harvard University distributed bracelets that said "No Vote, No Voice" to all students and "asked them to pledge to wear them until election day as a reminder to themselves and others to vote on election day" (Tried and True, 2005, p. 10).


Tapping into technology may assist in educating students about social responsibility and civic engagement. Groups for campus, local, regional, national, and international political organizations and candidates have flourished on sites like Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. Organizations and issue groups representing the entire political spectrum provide opportunities for students to learn, discuss, and mobilize to confront common concerns.

On Facebook, many active political discussion groups can be found. Canadian Youth Political Forum was formed for people to explore and debate Canadian politics. Also, more issue specific groups have been created, such as "Action on Dafur-Now!"

Along with creating online communities to discuss politics, many institutions have created Web sites that include information on candidates, issues, voter registration, voting sites, and often included discussion forums.

Beyond campus

Some institutions have started looking beyond their own campus to the community. Temple University is home to the Youth VOICES Project, "a project-based learning initiative that engages Philadelphia youth in civic activities, while providing mentorship opportunities for university students in field-based youth development activities" (About VOICES, n.d., ¶ 1). Temple University students teach classes throughout the year to "help young people develop strategies and tools to navigate their environments more effectively by building their individual and collective voices in order to participate in larger societal conversations" (About VOICES, n.d., ¶ 1). The university students are recruited and trained to teach the courses by the University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia (About Voices, n.d., ¶ 3). Goals of VOICES include (About Voices, n.d., ¶ 6):

  • To support the community building efforts of young people by connecting their individual issues and projects to the larger communities in which they live, work and go to school;
  • To build young people’s confidence in their ability to be community leaders and to promote a sense of civic responsibility;
  • To create a network of civically engaged youth across the city of Philadelphia;
  • To engage youth in problem-solving activities that will enable them to define and understand key issues that affect their communities and their lives;
  • To provide youth with the tools necessary to engage in policy research and communication.

The VOICES Project not only assists in the educating of children in the Philadelphia area about their community and civic responsibility, but also provides a way for the university community to civically engage itself, allowing for those students who choose to participate in the VOICES Project to grow and learn. According to Barbara Ferman (2005):

As we pretend to "leave no child behind," thus forcing more and more primary and secondary instructors to "teach to the test," a method discredited by many leading educational theorists, programs like VOICES, that operate in environments conducive to developing the critical learning faculties, community awareness, trust, confidence, and self-esteem that provide the foundation for youth involvement in the governmental, political, and civic arenas, will become even more important. (p. 9)

The Oregon Student Action Center also offers a prime example of statewide political engagement efforts that foster desired learning outcomes related to meaning of citizenship, is aware of community needs, sees connection between self and others, understands principles of governance, and uses classroom learning in real world settings. The center is a Web site that provides educational information and avenues for involvement with the Oregon Student Association, a coalition of student government associations; the Oregon Students of Color Coalition; the Oregon Student Equal Rights Alliance; and the Northwest Student Leadership Conference. From educational tools to inform and register voters for the 2006 elections to a well-defined legislative agenda for 2007, experiences to enhance leadership learning and civic responsibility statewide and locally can be easily adapted for other states and institutions (Oregon Student Action Center, 2007).

Engaging students as future leaders

No matter what avenue used, creativity in designing learning experiences that attract and interest students will assist in educating them for productive participation as future leaders. Campus community builders should always be brining new programming that will civically engage students just as they are concerned about bringing entertainment to students. Umair Mamsa, vice chair of the University of Illinois–Chicago Student Centers Board, feels that students just need to be given a little push.

The biggest [strategy] to engage young people in the process is to foster and show the values and benefits of civic engagement. Many young people have a thirst and hunger to be more than detached individuals and be active members of their community, but are ill equipped with the knowledge and opportunities that exist. Once mobilized and actively engaged in our democracy, I truly believe the impact that can be made will truly revolutionized politics. No longer will we be the neglected and unappreciated minority, but rather the fundamental force that shapes the political issues. Students at colleges and higher [education] institutions number in the thousands. If even half these students voted, then
politicians would spend a lot more time and energy and consider us a critical constituency. (personal communication, February 20, 2007)

Lowery (2004) suggests that if student affairs professionals are knowledgeable about the unique needs of millennial generation, they can help this generation reach their full potential. Re-engaging students in the political arena is one way college union professionals can educate "them in leadership, social responsibility, and values" (Role of the College Union, 1996, ¶ 2).


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