2020 was a huge win for youth voter participation with the highest-ever turnout for young voters. Nearly half of 18-29-year-olds casting ballots compared to 39% in 2016. But 2020 also made it clear: there is still a lot of work to do.

Changes to voting laws add confusion. Political differences and polarization add tension. And while we celebrate the record-high youth turnout – we still need to motivate the 20 million young people who didn’t show up to vote. 

Higher education institutions are designed specifically to engage young people. While civic engagement is often considered beyond the purview of colleges and universities, we see an integral opportunity for higher ed institutions and our democracy.

Here are three reasons your campus should invest in voter engagement:

1. Colleges are a trusted messenger.

You are often the first touchpoint for the newest, youngest voters when it comes to voter information.

Who are “young voters”?
The “young voter” category ranges from ages 18 to 29 or sometimes 18 to 34. This presents a challenge since the age ranges combine high school seniors who are newly eligible to vote with individuals 10 years into their careers. Critical nuances in behavior and needs are overlooked.

Newer voters, lower turnout.
Voters aged 18 to 19 years old are consistently turning out at lower rates than even slightly older peers. Only forty-six percent (46%) of 18-19-year-olds cast their ballots in 2020, and in some states, the gap was especially wide. In South Dakota, for example, only 12% of 18-19-year-olds voted compared to 30% of peers under 30.

A voting resource at the start of their voting journey. Colleges and universities can help improve the voter turnout rate, specifically for 18 to 21-year-olds. Students often depend on colleges for their basic daily needs from meals to their social life, and they trust higher ed institutions more than the media. That means there is a clear path to bake civic engagement into the processes students are already doing for the first time. Registering for classes? Get registered to vote too.

2. Incoming college students expect universities to deliver meaningful community and social purpose.

GenZ is the prospective college student for the next decade. They are more compassionate, empathetic, and issue-driven than previous generations—and that means they have heightened expectations for the communities they join.  

Across sectors, brands and employers are adapting for a generation that prioritizes social causes. Only 19% of Gen Z would work for a company that doesn’t share its values. They apply the same calculus in their decision when choosing where to invest four vital years at an educational institute. 

Leadership goals. These incoming students are growing up with a new form of mainstream activism, like the March for Our Lives movement. Twenty seven percent (27%) of 18 to 24-year-olds have attended a march or demonstration, a 5X increase from 2016. A recent American Freshman Survey found a record-high 40% of incoming students say becoming a community leader is a “very important” or “essential” life objective for them.

Walking the walk. Not only do they care about values, but they also care about authenticity—are you paying lip service, or are you walking the walk? In fact, research finds that making a statement not backed up by action has a worse effect on morale and productivity than not saying anything at all. 

Investing in a robust, measurable civic engagement program that touches students’ daily lives shows that American educational institutes are taking the lead on impact and practice the values they also preach. 

3. Civic engagement drives better academic outcomes and alumni engagement

Investing in civic engagement doesn’t just strengthen democracy—it also has a positive impact on academic and institutional performance. 

Research shows a statistically significant relationship between civic engagement programs and academic success. Students who participate in civic programming gain higher-order skills such as critical thinking, and have more emotional intelligence. Students who are civically engaged are also more likely to finish their degrees, pursue further higher education, and become community leaders. 

Through civic engagement programming, colleges and universities help students become essential members of society by ensuring they leave college armed with specific academic skills and a deep understanding of how to contribute to our collective society. 

Interested in learning more about how to manage your civic education or voter support programs?

Motivote empowers causes, colleges, and companies to run high-impact voter engagement programs that help people navigate the voting process. We want to learn more about how we can support your efforts. Head to our Contact Us page and send us a note or schedule a time to meet.