In 2012, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement called on the U.S. to reclaim higher education’s civic mission, encouraging them to make civic learning and engagement more pervasive on their campuses.
Since then, colleges and universities have made great strides toward making civic learning and democratic engagement more pervasive on their campuses. They have succeeded in increasing the number of students who volunteer in their communities; they have increased the number of service-learning courses offered; they have taken community-based research into account for promotion and tenure; and many now have offices or centers that support this work.
When the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge was established in 2016, one area that still lacked focus was democratic engagement and, especially, the practice of encouraging student participation in elections.
In the 2012 presidential election, just 39% of young adults ages 18–29 and 47% of college students voted. For the 2014 midterm election, those numbers dropped to 20% and 19%, respectively.
Using data collected since the early 1970s, we see that presidential election voting rates have not changed dramatically, but that midterm election voting rates have been steadily decreasing for these groups. In fact, young adults are the least represented population in national elections.
We wanted young adults to be democratically engaged and to participate in elections in larger numbers. To make this happen, we asked ourselves two questions, first, where are there large numbers of young adults? And second, who can help us make change happen?
The answer to both of these questions was: colleges and universities.
Through a coordinated effort to create environments that value civic learning, engage students in thoughtful ways, and remove barriers to participation, colleges and universities can graduate students with the knowledge, skills, behaviors, and values needed for responsible and informed engagement in our democracy. With the large numbers of students enrolled in our nation’s colleges and universities, a coordinated effort by higher education can make a significant impact on instilling the importance of democratic participation and, ultimately, accelerate long-term change for an improved democracy.
To support campuses with increasing student participation in the democratic process, we encourage institutions to participate in the free National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE). Launched in 2013, NSVLE, is a service to colleges and universities interested in learning their students’ aggregate voter registration and turnout rates in national elections since 2012. With around 10 million college student records for federal elections starting in 2012, NSLVE is also a significant database for research providing data for federal elections in 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020. The NSLVE is a signature initiative of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. IDHE is a non-partisan applied research institute that studies higher education’s role in democracy, including issues of student political learning, discourse, equity and inclusion, and participation.
To learn how best to encourage colleges and universities to do more to increase democratic engagement, we worked with the nonprofit behavioral design lab ideas42 and spent several months developing and vetting a concept that would incentivize and recognize colleges and universities for their work in this area. The program was intentionally designed to encourage collaboration, increase the use of data in planning, and enhance intentionality. In late 2015, the search for a home for the program, as well as its leadership, began. In 2016, the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge became a part of the nonprofit organization Civic Nation and its first staff members were hired. In the summer of 2016 the initiative was soft launched at the 2016 Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Meeting in Indianapolis, IN, organized by the American Democracy Project, The Democracy Commitment, and NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and in July it was officially launched with 73 initial colleges and universities participating. In its inaugural year, more than 200 campuses joined the ALL IN Challenge.
Project Manager, Democracy Fund Voter Study Group
then President, Campus Compact
then Director, American Democracy Project, AASCU
Executive Editor, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning
Assistant Professor, Department of Advertising & Public Relations, Michigan State University
then Vice President of Student Affairs, Rollins College
Executive Director, College Promise Campaign
Associate Professor, Department of Government and Politics, University of Maryland
Lord Family Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs & Community, Rollins College
Director, Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University
Director of Leadership and Engagement, Division of Student Affairs, North Carolina Agricultural and Technology State University
then Director, The Democracy Commitment
University of Miami
Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Michigan
The more than 800 campuses that have joined the ALL IN Challenge since its launch are committed to making nonpartisan democratic engagement a core value. Together, they are cultivating generations of engaged citizens, who are essential to a healthy democracy.
Our first awards ceremony honoring participating campuses was held on October 19, 2017, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. There we awarded 208 seals of recognition, 4 awards to individual stakeholders including students, faculty, and administrators, and 31 awards to colleges and universities.