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CAMBRIDGE, MA - Community volunteerism is high, but political involvement is low among college students, according to a new, national survey of attitudes toward politics and public service among students at four-year colleges and universities. While student political involvement is on the decline, today’s college students say they would be responsive to a variety of measures to increase their participation in the political process. The survey of 800 undergraduates was conducted last month by the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard University.
Sixty percent of college students say they have been involved in community service activities during the past year, compared with 16% who have joined a government, political or issues-related organization and 7% who have volunteered or plan to volunteer on a political campaign. Furthermore, college students overwhelmingly favor community volunteerism over political engagement as the best way to solve local problems (85% to 14%) and national problems (60% to 36%).
"College students are rejecting traditional politics and looking for a new way to effect change in the public realm," said John Della Volpe, president of Boston-based opinion research firm SWR/Della Volpe and the senior advisor on the IOP survey. "They don’t trust government, and they believe political involvement is fraught with barriers. They find community service to be more accessible and more results-oriented. As community servants, they are a force," he said.
The study identified several factors that represent barriers to student political involvement. Such factors include the perception that students "feel like they need more practical information about politics before they get involved" (87% agreement); a sense that "volunteering in the community is easier than volunteering in politics" (86% agreement); and a belief that politics is not enjoyable. While "enjoyment of activity" is cited as the number one reason why students get involved in an extracurricular activity, only 53% even partially agree that "political activity is enjoyable," and a scant 7% strongly agree.
The survey findings are of concern to former U.S. Senator and IOP Director Alan K. Simpson, who leads the Institute in finding ways to inspire students to public service. "To me, the truth was that politics was indeed ‘enjoyable.’ We need to help the students see that they can accomplish much, have some excitement and yes, even fun too! – in politics, and that they should decided to take part or get taken apart," he said.
In a significant departure from existing studies on student political participation, the Institute of Politics survey also identified measures that could be successful in elevating student involvement in politics. College students would be especially receptive to simplified absentee balloting (93% effectiveness rating), and incentives such as loan forgiveness programs and signing bonuses for graduates who enter government service (88% effectiveness rating), and partnerships between colleges and local governments that enable students to earn academic credit for public service activities (95% effectiveness rating). Students also want to see tangible results from their activities. "As a generation, our approach to most things tends to be pretty pragmatic. We might be less idealistic than previous generations, but we’re probably more goal-oriented," said Trevor Dryer, Harvard class of 2002 and a co-chair of the Institute’s survey effort. "We need to know that our efforts will produce results," he said.
The survey was developed by a group of Harvard undergraduates in cooperation with members of the Institute of Politics staff, and John Della Volpe, the project’s senior advisor.
"The idea for this survey came directly from these fine Harvard students and it was carried out by them. They do care deeply about their generation’s place at the table, and the IOP cares deeply about that too. Politics is very much a noble profession, and these students are learning and discovering that," Simpson said.
"From the very beginning, our goals for this survey have been very straightforward," said Erin Ashwell, Harvard class of 2002 and the project’s founding co-chair. "We wanted to find out whether students are as involved in politics as we know they are in community volunteerism. And we wanted to know what kinds of initiatives and programs would be effective in making various forms of political participation more attractive to our peers. We got answers to both questions," she said. "I am optimistic that we can put these findings to productive use. The hard work begins now. But I know we can make a difference," she said.
The survey carries a margin of error of +/- 3.45% at the 95% confidence level.
The Institute of Politics was established in 1966 with an endowment from the John F. Kennedy Library Corporation to inspire undergraduate students to enter careers in politics and public service, and to promote greater understanding and cooperation between the academic community and the political world. The Institute offers a wide-ranging program for students including internships, Forum events and speakers, visiting and resident fellows, study groups and conferences intended to provide opportunities for interaction with the men and women who shape politics and public policy.
Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service
A National Survey of College Undergraduates
Conducted by The Institute of Politics, Harvard University
Community volunteerism is high, but political involvement is low among college students.
60% of college students are or have been involved in community service during the past year.
16% have joined a government, political or issues related organization.
7% have volunteered or plan to volunteer in a political campaign.
College students are disillusioned about and disconnected from the political system.
64% do not trust the Federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time.
74% of college students believe that politicians are motivated by selfish reasons.
87% say they need more practical information about politics before they get involved.
86% of students agree that volunteering in the community is easier than volunteering in politics.
97% believe "enjoyment of activity" is an effective factor in motivating them. But only 7% strongly agree that "political activity is enjoyable," while 46% somewhat agree and 44% disagree.
College students are seeking new ways to solve local and national problems.
85% prefer community volunteerism to political engagement as the better way to solve important issues facing their communities.
60% of students prefer community volunteerism to political engagement as the better way to solve important issues facing the country.
This survey shows that a number of measures could be effective in motivating college students to greater levels of interest and participation in politics. Such measures include:
Making politics more transparent.
Demystify the process: 93% of students believe simplifying the process of registering and voting would be effective in motivating them to become more involved in politics and public service.
Use technology: Enabling citizens to vote via the Internet would increase turnout among college students by approximately 10%.
Showing students that politics is an effective way to make concrete changes. 90% of students believe that showing students real-life example of the efficacy of politics will motivate students to further political engagement.
Offering students more direct contact with candidates and public office holders. 94% of students say more direct contact with political candidates, campaigns and institutions would be an effective way to raise political participation rates. 87% believe a presidential debate that focused specifically on the issues students care about would be effective.
Providing incentives. 95% say curricular partnerships between colleges and state or local governments in which students are permitted to earn academic credit for public service activities would be effective in motivating students to become more involved. 88% of students believe loan forgiveness programs and signing bonuses for graduates who commit to government service would be effective motivators.
Margin of error for the total sample is +/- 3.45% at a 95% confidence level.
The complete text of the survey may be found at:
For more information about this project, please contact the Institute of Politics at: 617-495-1360.