Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
As noted, young adults with college experience are much more civically engaged than their peers who do not attend college. This gap reflects the differing advantages and opportunities that accumulate from childhood on, but colleges and universities also directly strengthen the civic skills, motivations, and knowledge of their students through the courses and extracurricular opportunities that they offer. After all, the mission statements of most colleges and universities contain some reference to the civic preparation of younger generations.
Higher education is increasingly committed to a civic mission. One form that commitment takes is organized volunteering, already mentioned above, but it also includes community-based research, durable partnerships between colleges or universities and nearby community organizations, political discussion and debate on campus, courses that impart civic skills, student-produced news media, internships and study-abroad opportunities, and events and exhibitions meant to serve communities. Among the groups endorsing a broad civic mission are Campus Compact (a consortium of more than one thousand colleges and universities that have adopted principles of civic engagement), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' American Democracy Project, the Association of American Colleges and Universities' Core Commitments program, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' Civic Indicators project, to name a few. Likewise, over the past several decades, higher education has moved toward a public and outreach scholarship model of undergraduate education, one that integrates public and civic issues with courses in an undergraduate major. As the transition to adulthood grows more protracted, this model of higher education may offer psychological benefits by helping students find purpose in roles other than the (often unpredictable) world of work and by helping them see that citizenship is not a part-time enterprise.37
Several of the forms of civic education offered on campuses have not been evaluated for their impact on students. But research does show that engaging in diversity workshops and socializing with diverse groups of peers, discussing social and political issues with fellow students, joining student organizations, and participating in learning communities and collaborative learning strengthen students' community orientation and commitments.38 Service-learning courses that tie service to course content support students' commitment to social activism, their awareness of social and economic inequality and systemic causes of those inequities, and their personal feelings of social responsibility. In-depth studies using long-term data show that ambitious courses in which students analyze and address social problems increase civic knowledge and narrow gaps in civic engagement among students.39
The opportunities colleges offer for civic learning vary widely, with most of the variations reflecting differences in endowments and prestige. A study of 400 randomly recruited undergraduates at Ivy League universities, flagship state universities, and selective liberal arts colleges found student experiences with civic engagement virtually universal and popular. By contrast, at non-selective public universities and poorly endowed private colleges, many students reported no civic engagement and low efficacy.40
The most affordable, most accessible, and most egalitarian institutions of higher education in the nation are community colleges. In 2005, these two-year colleges enrolled nearly 40 percent of all college students, including more than half of all minority and first-generation college students. Rough estimates are that 80 percent of community college students are the first in their families to attend college. Community colleges serve a far more diverse population than do four-year colleges. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, minority students account for 30 percent of enrollment. English as a Second Language courses are typical, reflecting the recent immigrant status of many of their students. Community colleges are thus a key institutional setting for recruiting into political life members of groups who now participate at lower levels.
Long-term analyses following eighth graders into young adulthood find very significant effects of attending two-year colleges on voting. According to Juliana Pacheco and Eric Plutzer, full-time enrollment in a four-year college would increase voting rates by 10 percent for whites, 10 percent for blacks, and 14 percent for Hispanics. But for African Americans, attending a two-year college half time would increase voting rates more than attending a four-year school full time.41 A recent experimental study in Louisiana described in more detail in the article by Tom Brock in this volume provides a clue to potential mechanisms. This incentive scholarship program combined with counseling for low-income, largely African American mothers in their mid-twenties raised the likelihood of registering to vote and of donating time or money to a political campaign. Students improved their course attendance and earned more credits; they also enjoyed other psychosocial benefits, such as feeling able to set and pursue personal goals, feeling a sense of purpose in life, and feeling that they have something positive to contribute.42