Preparing the Next Generation of Engaged Voters

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In my April blog post about the limitations of college rankings, I wrote that "the best colleges produce graduates who will make a difference in the world." One of the key areas where graduates can make a difference has been on full display these last few weeks as the two major political parties of the U.S. formally named their nominees for the presidency.

Building the next generation of politically involved and engaged citizens is among the most important roles higher education plays. According to Census Bureau statistics for the November 2012 election, 81.7 percent of those with a bachelor's degree reported that they were registered to vote, compared to only 63.7 percent of those with a high school degree.

Higher education clearly contributes to building an engaged citizenry, and I would argue that a liberal arts education at a small residential campus is particularly suited to this important task.

A liberal arts education requires all students:
  • To learn to read a text closely and question an argument, a skill that is foundational to analyzing a law, a referendum, or a candidate's position.
  • To demonstrate proficiency in quantitative reasoning. The ability to understand and use data for decision-making is as critical to weighing political proposals as it is to growing a business.
  • To understand the past and other societies. Our graduates don't look at an issue in isolation. Instead they see things as part of a continuum and can contextualize what's happening today relative to past events and through various cultural lenses.
  • To reflect on the way that an individual's behaviors will be understood and accepted by their community.

With its commitment to developing all of these capacities in its graduates, liberal arts education helps to shape citizens who will bring varied and complex skills and perspectives to citizenship and voting.

Experiencing liberal arts education at a small residential college in turn builds practice in governance, and offers the lived experience that active involvement in building community really makes a difference. This is the education that students at small residential colleges gain outside of the classroom when they are both encouraged to participate in some form of student government, serve as leaders of their residential experience, or create organizations, clubs or other extracurricular experiences that contribute to a positive campus community.

While these opportunities exist at larger universities, they are much more central to the student life at smaller schools. On a small campus, almost every student is asked to engage in the difficult, often messy, and ultimately rich experience of creating a democratic and ethical community.

At Bryn Mawr, for example, as well as nearby Haverford, the entire student body is asked by student government leaders to come together once a semester and vote on resolutions put forth by their fellow students. If these plenary sessions do not gain quorum--sufficient voter participation--then proposals cannot come up for a vote. On our campuses and at many other residential liberal arts colleges, dorm leadership teams create educational programming in response to campus issues and organize activities to promote a sense of connection and community. Students often have responsibility for the complicated task of allocating funding among clubs and organizations.

Like many forms of governing, it can be an inefficient process. Change tends to happen slowly. Students have to wrestle with challenging questions. Who is involved in decision-making? How do they create interest among their peers in participation in student government? How should resources be allocated? How do they work with other constituencies on campus when governance for decision-making is shared?

At a small residential college, students live the importance and power of contributing to their community (as well as the frustrations). Individual voices can be heard. Students must practice the skills of organization, negotiation, and conflict-resolution. Proposals are amended and brought up for a vote again. Students try to influence administrators and faculty members on policy and practice. Students experiment with the effectiveness of inducements and consequences for non-participation.

These are the experiences and values that our graduates bring to their organizations and communities, where they understand the importance of engagement, they advocate for the progress that is most meaningful to them, and they participate in the voting process. They become agents of change - and they propel us into the future.

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