Efforts to increase college student voting participation rates

October 30, 2018



By Richard Doherty, AICUM President



As America heads to the voting booth next week, the eyes of many candidates, pollsters and pundits will be on the turnout rates of young voters, particularly college students.  Younger voters, including college students, tend to vote at lower rates than older voters, and even more so in midterm (non-Presidential) elections.  In the most recent midterm election in 2014, only 18 percent of college-aged students voted, compared to about 37 percent of the overall population.  This consistently low turnout rate among college students prompted the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to issue a “call to action” and begin a national discussion about how to better engage students in the voting process.


In response to DOE’s “call the action”, colleges and universities have taken on a leadership role in encouraging students to be more civic-minded and engaged in the electoral process.  In order to help institutions of higher education better understand the participation rates on their campuses, The Institute of Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE), part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, has undertaken a national study of college voters.  The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) is working with over 1,000 campuses and 10 million student records in all 50 states to study student and institution-level data on student voting participation rates.


Following an election, participating colleges and universities receive a report that includes the student voting and registration rates for that election, any changes from the prior election, and voting rates by gender, enrollment status, program of study, etc.  In order to ensure student privacy, all data are deidentified and reported on an institution or aggregate basis.


In the 2016 Presidential election, Massachusetts saw one of the largest increases in student voting rates across institutions.  As the 64 participating Massachusetts colleges and universities analyze the data from their specific NSLVE report, faculty and staff can better understand what segments on campus are not participating in elections and develop messaging to help encourage civic-minded practices from those groups.  Working from this data, NSLVE has developed 10 recommendations for campuses to help increase college student voting, including:


  • Establish voter registration drives and on-campus polling locations;
  • Offer courses and learning opportunities on the history and current state of voting;
  • Create a permanent coalition on campus tasked with leading student mobilization efforts from one election to the next; and
  • Use NSLVE data and the upcoming elections to engage the campus community in current events discussions.

In addition to the wealth of data available from the NSLVE project, colleges and universities are getting creative in encouraging students to register and vote in upcoming elections.  One such approach is the All IN Campus Democracy Challenge, which encourages colleges and universities to join NSLVE, develop an action plan to increase student voting rates and track their progress.  Institutions will be recognized for joining the challenge and those that achieve student voting rates of 50 percent or above will earn special distinction and awards.


In our increasingly divided nation, it is more important than ever that college students are encouraged to participate fully in our democratic processes and exercise their right to vote.  Colleges and universities have recognized their role in promoting this important civic responsibility and are committed to graduating well-informed, civically engaged students.  I, for one, am encouraged by the early data from the NSLVE showing increases in student voting from 2012 to 2016 and look forward to reviewing the data from the 2018 midterms, which hopefully will show a similar increase over 2014 midterm participation rates.


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