Studying Political Engagement in Higher Education

The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement is groundbreaking research on voting rates on college campuses across America.

College campuses across the country support civic learning experiences for their students, but to what extent do these experiences promote student political learning and engagement in democracy?

New research from Tisch College and our Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) is delving into that question and helping campuses understand the conditions that facilitate or hinder student political engagement. Tisch College’s National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) is the first national, comprehensive study that allows college campuses to evaluate their voter turnout and registration rates.

“Voting is by no means the only indicator of civic engagement, but it’s a helpful starting point to explore deeper questions related to student political participation on campus,” explains Nancy Thomas, director of the Initiative for the Study of Higher Education and Public Life, which is running the study. “By pursuing qualitative case studies on campus climate and political engagement, we are gaining broader insights and identifying future research questions.”

After developing a sophisticated model that predicts an individual campus’ voting rate, the NSLVE team identified six outlier campuses whose actual voting rates exceeded or fell below the predicted value. In April, the researchers will travel to several of these campuses to study the specific conditions that contribute to strengthening or thwarting student political engagement.

While those case studies are expected to produce valuable insights, over 260 campuses are already participating in NSLVE and have received a free, detailed analysis of their campus’ voting rates —including how many students registered to vote and how many voted in 2012. These numbers are broken down by age, class level, field of study, and, if known, race/ethnicity and gender.

“This baseline will help university leadership improve academic programs and co-curricular experiences to further encourage political participation,” says Thomas. “Additionally, as our diverse list of participating institutions continues to grow, we hope to gather better collective knowledge regarding promising civic engagement strategies.”

The higher education community has already made its interest in this broader research clear. The NSLVE team has been invited to present these findings at two conferences this summer: the 2014 American Democracy Project and the Democracy Commitment National Joint Meeting and the 2014 NASPA Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Conference. During these conferences, NSLVE will facilitate an interactive discussion on promising practices for facilitating successful political engagement based on their qualitative inquiry.

Ultimately, the team envisions engaging numerous campuses in future research. Until then, NSLVE welcomes all institutions to participate in the current study.