This month the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government released a poll of young American adults. The survey, conducted in late September and early October, held some bad news for Mitt Romney. Among those Americans ages 18 to 29 who said they would “definitely” be voting in next month’s election, 55 percent said they planned to cast their ballots for President Barack Obama. Only 36 percent supported Romney, with the rest undecided. This is not surprising—young voters are often more liberal—but it speaks to the continuing challenges faced by the GOP as it works to expand its base of support.
More surprising, perhaps, is that young Americans seem fairly tuned out during this election cycle. Although the stakes are high, not least for the young—unemployment, women’s reproductive rights, educational policy—only 58 percent of those polled by the IOP said that they would definitely or probably vote. The contest can’t compare excitement-wise to 2008, when 76 percent of participants in that year’s IOP study said they would show up at a polling station on election day. (And young people did show up in record numbers, helping to sweep Obama to victory.)
College students in this year’s poll were more politically engaged. Over half of those attending four-year colleges or universities said they were excited about the election and 69 percent said they were likely to vote—a difference of 20 percentage points from those who were not enrolled in college and did not already have bachelor’s degrees.
What’s more, on a variety of opinion questions, such as those about national security, college students were less likely than their non-college-educated peers to respond “don’t know,” evidencing greater political sophistication. For all the criticism directed at American colleges and universities in recent years, at least they seem to be doing a decent job of educating students to be involved citizens.
That’s the optimistic spin anyway. The more pessimistic one is this: Despite the fact that more than half of faculty members say on surveys that an important goal for undergraduate instruction is to “encourage students to become agents of social change,” colleges don’t have much of an effect on student political participation.
The pessimistic take flies in the face of years of research by political scientists and higher-education scholars. In line with the IOP findings, research has long shown that people who have been exposed to higher education tend to have more political knowledge and be more active politically. Not just when they are in school, but for the rest of their lives the college-educated are more likely to vote, participate in campaigns, follow political news, and talk with people about political matters. Researchers typically argued that higher education led to political engagement by giving people information about politics, providing them with frameworks for making sense of the political world, and immersing them in social networks with others who are politically involved.
Recently, however, this idea has been called into question. Rates of college attendance have risen drastically over the past 40 years, while participation in politics has declined. Also, a number of sophisticated studies by political scientists have suggested that much of the association between higher education and political engagement is spurious, a function of underlying factors that lead to both, like coming from a better-off family.
In a 2009 paper, for example, the political scientist Benjamin Highton analyzed data from a large longitudinal study that began with a survey of high-school seniors in 1965. Participants in the study were surveyed again in 1973, 1982, and 1997. Highton found that there were significant differences in political knowledge between college graduates and nongraduates in later waves of the survey—but that these differences were already present in high school. Attending college did increase people’s understanding of where the Democrats and the Republicans fall on the ideological spectrum, but this effect did not persist over time.
Another study in the same vein, by the political scientists Cindy Kam and Carl Palmer, looked at participation specifically, using the same data as Highton (though with a replication using a different survey). Kam and Palmer proceeded from the insight that people who attend college may be different sociologically and even psychologically from those who do not. Since these differences might also affect involvement in politics, they would have to be taken into account in assessing the effect of higher education on political engagement.
To deal with this problem, the researchers first developed a statistical model to predict whether any given study participant would attend college. They then matched individuals in the study on their propensity to attend, and compared the political-participation levels of those who did pursue higher education to the levels of those who did not but who had similar propensities. Examining behaviors like voting, working on a campaign, or volunteering on local issues, Kam and Palmer found that the sizable gaps initially evident between the college educated and the non-college-educated all but disappeared once the matching procedure was employed.
It’s too early to tell what these studies will amount to. One possibility is that the statistical techniques used by the researchers will turn out to be problematic. Another possibility, raised by the sociologist Kyle Dodson in a recent paper, is that while college attendance might not have much of an effect on political participation in general, certain kinds of college experiences could increase levels of political sophistication and engagement for certain kinds of students in certain periods. In other words, context may matter.
It’s also possible, though, that the revisionist research is right, and that college simply doesn’t do as much as we once thought it did to stir up people’s interest in politics. The taste for politics might be a habit or disposition that requires far longer than four years to cultivate, and might arise from familial and personal characteristics and circumstances the influence of which no higher-education institution could ever approximate.
If this is so, then one of my personally cherished arguments for continued expansion of the higher-education sector just got a little weaker.
Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and will be a visiting scholar at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge in 2013. His latest book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, will be published in April by Harvard University Press.
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