Educating Students for Democracy: What Colleges Are Doing, How It’s Working, and What Needs to Happen Next

Published date01 January 2023
AuthorElizabeth A. Bennion,Melissa R. Michelson
Date01 January 2023
Subject MatterThe Complex Demands of Civic Reasoning and Discourse
ANNALS, AAPSS, 705, January 2023 95
DOI: 10.1177/00027162231188567
Students for
What Colleges
Are Doing,
How It’s
Working, and
What Needs to
Happen Next
In the U.S., we have historically looked to our educa-
tors to prepare citizens for full participation in our
democracy as engaged and informed voters. We exam-
ine the student voting movement that has taken root in
colleges and universities across the country—a move-
ment that offers a promising way forward in forming a
new generation of engaged citizens. We detail what we
know about how to increase student turnout, suggest
ways to strengthen voter mobilization efforts through a
broader civic education agenda, chart a path forward
for future research, and offer recommendations for col-
lege administrators who seek to make voting a lifelong
habit for their students. We also look beyond the stu-
dent voting movement to argue for new forms of peda-
gogy that foster civic identity so that students think of
themselves as voters who always vote, because voting is
a necessary way to express themselves as engaged citi-
Keywords: civic education; young voters; student vot-
ers; voter mobilization; higher education;
electoral engagement; get out the vote
One of the primary purposes of higher edu-
cation is to educate citizens for democracy.
This includes, but is not limited to, preparing
students to become informed voters. In April
2022, the U.S. Department of Education issued
Elizabeth A. Bennion is Chancellor’s Professor of
Political Science and director of community engage-
ment at Indiana University South Bend. She is coeditor
of three books, including Teaching Civic Engagement:
From Student to Active Citizen (2013), Teaching Civic
Engagement across the Disciplines (2017), and Teaching
Civic Engagement Globally (2021).
Melissa R. Michelson is the dean of arts and sciences
and a professor of political science at Menlo College.
Her books include Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming
the Electorate through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns
(2012), which received the 2013 APSA Ralph J. Bunche
Award, and, most recently, LGBTQ Life in America
a “Dear Colleague” letter to campuses to remind them that the 1998 Reauthorization
of the Higher Education Act of 1965 mandates that they engage in certain voter
registration activities during years when their state is holding elections for federal
office, governor, or other chief executives (U.S. Department of Education 2022).
That same year, the American Council on Education released an issue brief,
“Election Year and College Political Campaign-Related Activities,” to remind
campuses of what their responsibilities are and what is permissible.1 Federal man-
dates notwithstanding, current threats to our democracy make clear that colleges
and universities must take proactive steps to fulfill the civic mission of higher
education. This includes using evidence-based best practices to educate and
mobilize student voters.
In recent years, the American Political Science Association has been giving
increased attention to promoting civic and political engagement. In 2000, it
launched a civic engagement section (a special interest group of the scholarly
society); and between 2013 and 2022, it published three books on teaching civic
engagement. Ending in a call to action, these books explicitly argue that political
scientists, college campuses, higher education leaders, and political leaders need
to do more to educate students for democracy by giving them the knowledge,
skills, motivation, and experience required to be active and informed residents,
citizens, and voters in their communities.2
Eager to help campuses engage students in the electoral process, nonprofit
organizations outside of the academy have taken up this call as well. The Students
Learn Students Vote (SLSV) Coalition has seized upon opportunities to address
intersectional issues faced by student voters through initiatives such as Campus
Vote Project’s (CVP) Legacy Initiative and Ask Every Student; the former was
created to identify and address the barriers Black students face in going to the
polls, and the latter is a national joint initiative that, in helping campuses try to
achieve full student voter registration, had an outsized impact on voter turnout
on community college campuses in 2020. In 2020, the Legacy Initiative part-
nered with the NAACP Youth and College Division to host roundtables at
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that yielded major themes
and proposed solutions for all who engage with and support HBCU students.
That same year, the participation of 30 community colleges in Ask Every Student
contributed to a 10-point jump in voting rates at these institutions compared to
Given these organizations’ commitment to increasing student participation
and their access to faculty researchers and important decision-makers on college
campuses, one might expect to see a substantial literature on mobilizing college
students to vote. However, much of the advice is based on anecdotal evidence,
observational studies that lack well-defined independent variables, and small
qualitative case studies. So what does the empirical literature tell us about effec-
tive methods to increase student voter turnout?
A number of national nonpartisan organizations collect and share data about
student voting and share best practices for encouraging student participation,
and they provide important support for campus efforts by nudging them to fulfill
their required civic engagement activities. At the same time, shifts in youth social

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