- College students today are interested in civic engagement, but not necessarily through traditional political parties or elections, according to a sweeping study from research firm Campus Labs using data from nearly 94,000 student organizations at roughly 400 college campuses over five academic years.
- The report, "Student Engagement as a Political Catalyst," concluded that students prefer to be involved in issue-based organizations rather than party-based groups, where they can address a specific concern or interest and participate with others having similar views. Of party-based groups, 60% were affiliated with the Democratic Party.
- Measuring student activism by voter turnout and political party activity is an inaccurate gauge of civic engagement, the report argues. It instead suggests colleges and political parties should examine the activity of those groups and participating students throughout the year to determine if they are yielding greater formal participation rates, such as for voting.
The Campus Labs research offers several details as to how interest in political parties varies on campus based on the politics of the state and proximity to an election. However, the primary message is that civic involvement by students in non-electoral activities should be encouraged.
Colleges are exploring ways to do so, which was the subject of a national symposium in January sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where presenters recommended approaches ranging from prioritizing community service and a required first-year course on public dialogue to efforts to more broadly ensure college campuses are key contributors to democracy.
Elon University, known for its focus on civic engagement, developed a Civic Engagement Council with members representing various university departments and the student body. It promotes a variety of activities outside of those related to elections.
Bob Frigo, a member of the council and associate director for Elon's Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement shared six tips for colleges to improve civic engagement. They include establishing and emphasizing coalitions to tackle problems, making connections to local election officials, offering voting resources for students, and developing campus guidelines for political activities and demonstrations. He explained that voting was "only the beginning" for Elon students, and should be part of a broader effort to develop civic leaders, build communities and improve democracy.
Establishing those guidelines at Elon and elsewhere points to a more contentious issue colleges must contend with: the potential ramifications of free speech and open political dialogue on campus. In that arena, administrators often are either challenged for not letting views be expressed on all sides of the political spectrum or for allowing dialogue and protests that are harmful.
A recent effort by Colgate University to develop a free speech policy noted that the campus community should "be receptive to unpopular ideas" and keep an open mind, while stressing that the expression of free speech should not cause "needless harm." It has drawn comparisons to a free speech statement issued by the University of Chicago in 2015 but goes a step further to emphasize sensitivity to others.