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 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, most now have offices or centers that support this work. While we have seen success in many areas, one that still lacks focus is democratic engagement, 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.
If we want young adults to be democratically engaged and to participate in elections in larger numbers, what do we have to do to make this change 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 citizenship. 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.
If we want colleges and universities to do more to increase democratic participation, what do we have to do encourage them? 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 Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Meeting, organized by the American Democracy Project, The Democracy Commitment, and NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and in July it was officially launched. In its inaugural year, more than 200 campuses joined the Challenge.
The more than 250 campuses that have joined the Challenge since its launch are committed to making democratic participation 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.