IOP Survey Finds College Campuses are Hotbeds of Political Activity

Contact: Andy Solomon
Phone: 617-496-4009
Contact Organization: Institute of Politics
Date: September 13, 2004

WASHINGTON, DC – While most of America’s college campuses are hotbeds of political activity this election year, hosting political speakers, rallies, and voter registration drives, more than one-third of schools fail to meet even the spirit of a federal law requiring voter registration opportunities for students, according to a new survey conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics (IOP) at the Kennedy School of Government and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Students and administrators on many campuses are effectively helping to increase civic participation,” said IOP Director Philip Sharp. “However, not all colleges and universities are fulfilling their obligations under the Higher Education Act to facilitate student voter registration. There is still time for all to meet the spirit of the law, and, more importantly, to help a new generation of Americans fulfill their civic responsibility.”

According to Chronicle reporting, some colleges and independent voter registration
groups face additional barriers because local and state election officials complain
they do not have the resources to register students. The influx of registration
forms this year from college students has overwhelmed some election officials.
Experts say the lack of administration and funding is not an excuse for ignoring
the law or treating college students differently.
The survey finds:

Political activity abounds on America’s college campuses. More than eight in 10 schools surveyed report hosting political speakers on campuses last semester. More than seven in ten hosted voter registration drives. More than one-third say protests or rallies took place on their campus.

Most schools meet the letter or the sprit of federal law, which requires voter registration efforts on campus. Approximately two-thirds of the schools surveyed meet either the letter or the spirit of the federal Higher Education Act of 1998. The Act requires colleges and universities to request a sufficient number of voter registration forms for the entire campus 120 days before an election’s registration deadline. The law also requires schools to distribute those forms to each enrolled student. Nearly 17 percent of schools surveyed report meeting the Act’s strict requirements. In addition, nearly 49 percent of the schools surveyed meet the “spirit” of the law by making paper voter registration materials readily available on campus and hosting an on-campus voter registration drive.

Still, too many schools fail to meet either the letter or the spirit of federal law requiring voter registration opportunities on campus. The survey finds nearly 36 percent of schools are not living up to the letter or the spirit of the Higher Education Act of 1998. These schools cite such barriers as a lack of information regarding the law’s requirements and a plan for distributing voter registration materials on campus.

“Over one-third of schools surveyed need to stay after class when it comes to providing voter registration opportunities for their students,” said Professor David King, IOP Research Director. “The law requires schools to do their part to help register students to vote – and the future of our democracy demands that we engage today’s young people if we want them to become active citizens and leaders.”

Most schools believe that they could be doing more to help register students to vote. Most colleges and universities, 51 percent, gave themselves a grade of “B” in assessing their “effectiveness at registering voters.” More than 37 percent gave themselves a grade of “C,” “D,” or “F.”

Many schools have come up with extremely creative methods of encouraging voter registration. For example, Purdue University includes a section on voter registration with fee statements mailed to every student. At San Francisco State University, every student receives an e-mail from the school President encouraging him/her to register to vote. The University of New Hampshire provides voter information to incoming students and their parents during orientation. The President and key student leaders at Ithaca College hold a “Parade to the Polls” on Election Day. At Dickinson College’s fall Ben and Jerry’s ice cream night this fall, the admission ticket is a student’s sealed absentee ballot, which the school will post and mail for the student, or his/her voter registration card.

The innovative, 23-question survey was conducted by the IOP, in partnership with The Chronicle of Higher Education, which provided contact information for 815 university presidents and provosts at two- and four-year institutions of higher education across the nation. Two-hundred forty-nine institutions completed the survey via email for a response rate of 30.6 percent. IOP Research Director King analyzed the data. To encourage participation, the names of participating schools and administrators are confidential.

Data from this and other IOP surveys, as well as a national absentee voter information guide, are available online www.iop.harvard.edu.

Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, located at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, was established in 1966 with an endowment from the John F. Kennedy Library Corporation to engage young people in politics and public service. The Institute has been conducting national political polls of America’s college students since 2000. In 2003, the IOP established the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement, which now unites 20 colleges across the country in a collaborative effort to develop civic-minded and politically engaged students.

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