A College Degree Fails to Promote Active Civic Engagement Beyond Voting
In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the popular vote roughly 53% to 46%. While there were many factors that contributed to President Obama's historic victory, a decisive one certainly had to be the turnout rate and voting behavior of the youth. Historically, the 18 to 29-year-old demographic has been a notoriously unreliable voting bloc, averaging between 30% and 40% turnout for presidential elections from 1952–2000. However, voter turnout for younger voters reached 51% in 2008, and their share of the total electorate reached 18%—both historic highs. Furthermore, 18 to 29-year-olds voted overwhelmingly for President Obama, by a margin of 68% to 30%. When taken together, both the elevated turnout and Democratic character of the youth vote added a net increase of 7 percentage points to President Obama's overall margin of victory, which accounted for his entire electoral advantage over John McCain.
We begin our discussion of collegiate civic engagement with the 2008 youth vote (knowing that not all younger voters attend college), because it provides a useful prism by which to evaluate not only college's impact on political participation, but also its impact on public opinion, partisanship, and civic knowledge—the focus of ISI's previous civic literacy reports. In 2008, ISI's survey of 2,508 adults discovered that college graduates on average not only failed our civic literacy exam, but that an expensive college degree actually adds less to a graduate's overall level of civic knowledge than certain examples of civic self-education when combined together, like frequently reading and discussing history and current events an average of fifteen hours per week.
In 2009, ISI focused on the impact of college on both political opinion and partisan identification. In this case, we found that while college adds little to civic knowledge, it does seem to encourage graduates to identify more strongly with the Democrat and Liberal ends of the political spectrum, as well as to be more likely to adopt identifiably liberal positions on such polarizing social issues as same-sex marriage, abortion-on-demand, and school prayer. For many years, Americans have suspected that the liberal views that are dominant among college faculty and the campus climate would begin to rub off on unsuspecting undergraduates, and here finally was empirical evidence that corroborated those suspicions.
This report's first major finding was determined by first examining the participatory patterns of our random sample of Americans, and then isolating through multivariate regression analyses the independent impact of a college degree* on specific examples of political engagement. The selected results in the above table would certainly suggest that beyond mere voting, a college degree does not encourage graduates to become actively engaged in more consequential aspects of the political process. Said another way, among persons with equal civic knowledge, those having earned a bachelors degree do not demonstrate any systematic and added political engagement beyond voting.
A college degree appears to have the same negligible participatory impact as frequently listening to music, watching prime-time television, utilizing social networking sites, and emailing.
These examples of healthy grass-roots participation would seem to be the natural expectation of a collegiate experience that purports to educate students in the fundamental features of American democracy, promote critical thinking skills, and then motivate graduates to assert the rights and duties of American citizenship. Instead, a college degree appears to have the same negligible participatory impact as frequently listening to music, watching prime-time television, utilizing social networking sites, and emailing. We know that a great deal of these electronic activities do go on at a typical college campus; the fact that neither a great deal of civic learning nor engagement is being encouraged should give one pause, especially parents whose sizeable investment would indicate that they expect more out of a college education.
Taken together, the phenomena of an epidemic of civic ignorance on the part of college graduates, the liberalizing impact of the college experience, and now a pattern of collegiate civic engagement that emphasizes only voting conjure up images of civically illiterate, impressionable, and passive voters marching lockstep to the polls in support of a particular political and ideological viewpoint. In their efforts to boost the youth vote, MTV has famously tried to “Rock the Vote.” And if voting a particular way is the primary objective, it would seem that a college education goes along with this stream of semi-literate, passive voting.
*College degree is defined as the totality of cultural experiences, academic study, and learning during the four-year undergraduate period, independent of the study, learning, and knowledge of American civics, as measured by ISI's civic literacy test.