Why College Student Voting Matters

Why should colleges and universities focus on voting? 

It’s higher education’s job.

  • Preparing college and university students for responsible stewardship of a robust democracy has long been the core mission of American higher education. A clear affirmation of higher education’s civic purpose is reflected in a report by President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education (1947) which identified higher education as democracy’s “necessity.” In Volume 1, the Truman Report states,

[T]he principal goals for higher education… are to bring to all people of the Nation… education for a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living… and education for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems and to the administration of public affairs …

  • Recent surveys suggest that young people lack a commitment to democratic governance in the U.S. According to the Baker Center at Georgetown University, only 11% of Americans over the age of 64 question the value of living in a democracy. In contrast, 32% of Americans ages 18-29 believe that non-democracies “can be preferable” to democracy, (Ladd, Tucker, and Kates, 2018). 
  • Student voting rates reflect how well colleges and universities are fulfilling their civic missions. Voting is not the only indicator, but it is about a fundamental act of citizenship, and it can be measured objectively.


Why do college students matter in elections?

Students vote at lower rates than the national averages for all Americans.

  • In the 2016 election, 48% of college students voted, a rate significantly lower than the national average for all Americans of 61% (Democracy Counts 2017). In 2014, only 13% of college students ages 18-24 voted (Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, 2017b).
  • While voting rates increased in the 2018 midterm election, to 40%, that rate was still 10 percentage points lower than the average for all Americans. Voting is also habit-forming. People who vote at early ages develop lifelong habits (Plutzer, 2002). Low voting rates are cause for concern.

Students constitute a formidable voting bloc.

  • Over the past two decades, graduate and undergraduate enrollment increased from 13 million to 20 million after the great Recession, and then declined to today’s 18 million.[3]
  • Students constitute a large enough voting bloc to shape election outcomes and shape the future and health of a participatory, equitable, and informed democracy.

Advancing student voting will close equity gaps in political participation.

  • About 17% of students attending colleges and universities today live on campus and attend highly resourced institutions. Of today’s 15 million students who are pursuing either associates or bachelor’s degrees, nearly half (46% in 2016) attend two-year public institutions.[4] Of the students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs, less than one-third (28%) attend four-year private institutions.[5] 
  • College and university students are increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, low-income, and first-generation; closing voting gaps among students will tackle representational and political inequality. Twenty years ago, only 30% of undergraduates identified as being a race or ethnicity other than White.[6] Today, around half of the students attending two- and four-year public institutions are White; 64% of students attending private four-year institutions are White.
  • The percent of first-time, fulltime undergraduates who received Pell or other federal grants was 48% in 2011, the peak of the Great Recession, before declining to 42% in 2016. By way of comparison, 32% of students received Pell or grants twenty years ago.[7]
  • When broken down by race/ethnicity, gaps in college student voting are only slightly better than the national gaps. In 2016, 54% of White students voted, compared with 46% of Hispanic students, 31% of Asian students, and 49% of African American students (Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, 2017a).
  • In the 2014 midterm, however, only 16% of undergraduates voted, and, for example, only 8% of undergraduate Asian students voted (Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, 2017b). Colleges and universities can and should address the underlying educational reasons for these gaps.


    [1] http://pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_2019_Historical_Trend_Report.pdf page 27.

    [2] (http://pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_2019_Historical_Trend_Report.pdf  page 28).

    [3] (https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/CTEE_Report_Fall_2019.pdf).

    [4] (https://www.equityinhighered.org/indicators/enrollment-in-undergraduate-education/race-and-ethnicity-of-u-s-undergraduates/).

    [5] https://www.equityinhighered.org/indicators/enrollment-in-undergraduate-education/bachelors-degree-seeking-students/ (OR see http://pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_2019_Historical_Trend_Report.pdf which says that public institutions account for 78% of undergraduate enrollments and private non-profits account for 17%, page 15).

    [6] (https://www.equityinhighered.org/indicators/enrollment-in-undergraduate-education/race-and-ethnicity-of-u-s-undergraduates/).

    [7] http://pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_2019_Historical_Trend_Report.pdf (page 18)