When Benjamin Franklin founded the Academy and College of Philadelphia--later renamed the University of Pennsylvania--his aim was not just to provide promising students with useful educations. It was also, in the words of the school's charter, to impress upon the "tender minds" of its students "the several dutys they owe to the Society in which they live" and to "render them serviceable in the several Publick Stations to which they may be called."
Similar language about civic responsibility is embedded in the founding documents of Princeton, Brown, and hundreds of other colleges that were created across America during and after the time of the Revolution. It can also be found in the establishing papers of the great land-grant universities created in the wake of the Civil War. That includes the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College--today's Ohio State University--whose trustees wrote in 1873 that the new school's mission was to educate students not only as "farmers or mechanics, but as men, fitted by education and attainments for the greater usefulness and higher duties of citizenship."
The federal government endorsed that civic ideal in 1946, when a commission formed by President Harry Truman recommended that civics be embedded throughout all college curricula and concluded that "[w]ithout an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure." In 1971, eager to give protesting college students a bigger stake in the political system, Congress and the states ratified the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which lowered the voter age from twenty-one to eighteen. And in 1998, Congress reaffirmed colleges' civic mission yet again by mandating that universities distribute voter registration forms to all students.
Despite these lofty intentions, however, Washington has never put much muscle behind its demand that the American higher education system live up to its civic duties--and, not surprisingly, the system mostly has not. Only 17 percent of colleges and universities have complied with the voting registration requirements of the 1998 law--at least as of 2004, the last time anyone bothered to check. A current House bill would eliminate those requirements altogether. Meanwhile, several GOP-controlled states over the last decade--most recently New Hampshire this summer--have passed laws making it harder for college students to cast ballots. (Under a Texas law passed in 2013, student IDs can't be used for voting...