The Next Time Someone Tells You College Students Don’t Vote, Serve Up These Stats

By Torey Van Oot

PSA to politicians on the ballot in 2018 and beyond: College students are reared up and ready to vote.

That’s one takeaway from a major new study about voting trends among college students in last year’s presidential election. Tufts University’s just-released National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement is a first-of-its-kind analysis of the voting patterns of 10 million students on 1,000 campuses across the country. The results show that, despite the quadrennial narrative that young voters stay home on election days, about 48% of college students voted in 2016 — up from 45% in the 2012 election. A three percentage point shift might not sound that big, but it amounts to hundreds of thousands of more college voters (and, as we know from the last election, those numbers can make all the difference when the presidency is decided by super thin swing-state margins of victory).

What’s more, while those numbers still lagged behind the national turnout rate — 58%, based on exit poll projections — the spike in voting among college students actually outpaced that of the general population. Given that Sen. Bernie Sanders — the candidate who arguably galvanized the most enthusiastic support among young voters — wasn’t even on the ballot, researchers noted that college student turnout was especially striking.

“There was a lot of concern based on the involvement of Bernie Sanders and so forth that college students would not turn out, but in fact they did,” Nancy Thomas, the study’s director, told Refinery29. “And they turned out at rates higher than the increase for the national voting population.”

It’s hard to say exactly what motivated college students to head to the polls. But the high stakes and drama of the election, particularly in the last month of the campaign, probably didn’t hurt. Beyond those factors, Thomas cites campus climate as a major indicator of whether students wind up casting their ballots. Her deep dive into voting patterns across higher education across the country institutions revealed that the more students talk about issues and policy on campus — from lecture halls discussions to debates over free speech — the more likely they are to vote.

“The one finding that cut across every single campus we visited with extremely high turnout was high levels of political discourse in every nook and cranny,” she explained. “The more campuses can talk politics, the better our political systems will be.”

The landmark study, which was conducted by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, also breaks down college student voting patterns across gender, institution type, and even field of study. Among its findings:

● Who run the world (of politics)? College women. They voted at higher rates than their male peers. About 51% of women on college campuses voted in 2016, up from 48% the election before. In fact, female students in the study were 1.3 times more likely to vote than men.

● Students at women’s colleges were even more likely to flood the polls, with more than 60% casting ballots in 2016. That’s up from about 53% in 2012 (FWIW, Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee from a major party, is herself an alumna of a women’s college). Public and private four-year colleges experienced a spike in turnout, too. Historically black colleges and universities, meanwhile, saw a big drop in engagement. Just under 40% of students in those institutions voted, compared to 50% in 2012. Black students still turned out overall at higher rates than the general Black population, Thomas noted, adding that more analysis is needed to understand what happened at HBCUs.

● Does enrolling in PoliSci 100 mean you’ll take your passion for politics to the polls? The data would suggest the answer might be “aye.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, social science majors voted at the highest rates (52%). STEM majors, however, were more likely to stay home, with just under 43% casting a ballot.

So what does all of this mean for next year’s critical midterm elections? Turnout in nonpresidential years typically drops, especially among young voters (In 2014, youth voter turnout was abysmally low, Thomas says). But on the other hand, interest, and activism surrounding hot-button policy debates, including the future of the Affordable Care Act, remains high.

“Students really care about issues and none of these are going away,” Thomas said. Another encouraging data point is that turnout among Hispanic students rose considerably in 2016 — 7% from the previous election. Those students are likely to remain engaged given the ongoing debate over immigration policy (and DACA in particular). “The issues that Hispanic students might care about, they are very much still on the table,” she added.

So while we won’t know for sure until after the polls close on November 6, 2018 (mark your calendars now!), there are signs that the trend of increased campus turnout will hold.

“We’ve got some good foreshadowing, based on increases we see in 2016 [and] all this activity on college campuses that we see around free speech… political speech, the ability to talk politics on campus,” Thomas said. “You combine the trajectory, the issue-based interest and activism that we’re seeing, plus these promising developments among certain populations, I think 2018 certainly will be a much better year than 2014.”

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