Two friends of mine (Rob Hollister and Peter Levine) together with Nancy Wilson, all of them scholars at Tufts University, have a very good review of the research on student political engagement called Student Political Engagement: Educating Students to Foster Active Citizenship in PeerReview: Emerging Trends and Key Debates in Undergraduate Education (Spring/Summer 2008 issue).
They have a good list of what they see as the 15 most promising strategies for universities to pursue, but before providing that abridged list, it is worth noting that there appears to be a growing civic class gap that my colleague Bob Putnam has alluded to. Without attention to that gap, focusing more attention on how to get colelge students more civicly engaged, while an eminently desirable objective, runs the risk of exacerbating this gap between civic haves and civic have-nots. While universities attract a range of students from different socio-economic backgrounds, they still draw dispropotionately from students from more privileged economic backgrounds.
Here is an edited list of the 15 appraoches they recommend.
- “Define political participation and civic agency broadly. This definition should include electoral politics and support the fundamental role of government, and also to support pathways to community change through nonprofit and private sector action.
- Integrate education for political participation across the curriculum. Involve all disciplines, not only the social sciences—in order to reach more students and also engage the insights and models of more fields of study. We need not only social science majors, but also future engineers, natural scientists, business people, doctors, journalists, and artists who are both competent in their professional roles and also are active, effective citizens.
- Stop relegating civic engagement to the cocurriculum. Actualize the rich synergies between students’ curricular and extracurricular experiences.
- More fully exploit the educational potential of cocurricular activities. Invest heavily in elevating what students learn by volunteering and through political activity.
- Demonstrate that programming to elevate civic agency can lead to higher quality education. Political participation is important in and of itself, but proponents can garner additional support by demonstrating its broader educational benefits as well.
- Involve all constituencies. Administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community partners all play substantial roles in the development of current effective models. Support collective leadership, and both top-down and bottom-up leadership. Some of the most powerful civic initiatives have been invented and organized by students. Community partners can be great coeducators.
- Take advantage of student-produced news and information. This rapidly growing form of student democratic participation is one that will grow in its influence on students and on other constituencies as well.
- Encourage students at different institutions to collaborate. Peer effects are powerful: by concentrating on young people who are civically engaged and academically successful on certain campuses, we strengthen their civic development. However, we also isolate them from much less engaged groups of students and young people, for whom peer effects may be negative. Deliberate efforts should be made to bring young people from different campuses together in civic projects.
- Strengthen research about youth civic engagement. The further development of this area of research can support, guide and reinforce educational programming. This is a particularly important opportunity for research universities that, with a few notable exceptions, have been comparatively cautious in their civic engagement programming.
- Attend to the international as well as the domestic context and dimensions of civic agency. Educate for global as well as local and national citizenship.
- Work for real academic culture change, not just effective programs. Overall campus climate matters; it has a powerful effect on this dimension of student learning. …[A 2006] consensus report on higher education and civic engagement…found that individual programs were common and effective, but ‘few colleges and universities today have thought through an overall framework for civic and political education that is comprehensive, coherent, conceptually clear, and developmentally appropriate’
- Measure student learning outcomes. The civic engagement movement of higher education has been long on rhetoric, short on evidence. Treat the obvious methodological difficulties as an opportunity, not an excuse.
- Take steps to elevate institutional citizenship, which can only reinforce educational programming. When institutional politics and practices are in tension with educational goals and values, students notice the contradiction and it undercuts their learning of civic values and skills.
- Advocate for public policies that support this area of education, including financial aid tied to public service and increased funding for national service (highly effective federal initiatives that warrant greater investment include the Learn and Service Program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and community placements in college work–study).
- Pay more attention to what happens after students graduate. Take steps to reinforce their civic agency in the years after they receive their degrees.”