Student Activism Is Raising the Bar for All of Higher Education

Arielle Ahladianakis
Jan 2, 2020

The news is full of young people taking action on public issues. Students are marching to pressure public officials to act on climate change and to take action to reduce the likelihood of school shootings. They are reminding us that Black Lives Matter. They are on social media contributing to the success of younger and more diverse political candidates. Over and over, we see videos of young people confronting authoritative adults — senators, university presidents — and calling them to account for actions they have taken or failed to take.

However, we all know that what gets covered in the news or goes viral on social media is not necessarily reflective of what’s going on in the daily lives of real people. So it’s reasonable to ask whether there really is a wave of youth engagement in public issues. Are young people in 2019 really paying more attention to and getting more involved with the big issues of our day than those who came before them?

Young people are fired up

While it’s always good practice to be skeptical of hype, in this case, the answer is a resounding yes. Young people really are getting engaged in ways that set them apart from cohorts going back many years. Between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, the share of young people who cast a ballot jumped from 21% to 31%.1 Think about an indicator that matters to you and what it would mean to increase it by nearly 50% from one cycle to the next, and you begin to get a sense of the change we’re experiencing.

And it’s not just voting. The proportion of young people participating in protests tripled in the two years leading up the 2018 election. In that period, 22% of young people reported participating in offline activism, such as protests, marches and sit-ins. Many more engaged in online activism, such as signing internet petitions. And, in contrast to the typical picture of “clicktivism” or “slacktivism,” the evidence shows that online participants are much more likely to engage in real-world activism than others. Young people are getting engaged online, and they’re taking it to the streets and the ballot box.2

Crucially, along with all this action has come a change in belief. In far greater numbers than just two years ago, young people now believe that dramatic change is possible if people come together and demand it, and they believe that people working together can overcome the barriers that stand in their way.3

Raising the bar for higher education

So what does all this have to do with college? These data points give us a sense of the expectations that students bring to college. As interest in community service grew among young people in the 1990s and early 2000s, colleges and universities responded, creating centers for community engagement and embracing the pedagogy of service learning. We learned that students expected experiential learning focused on making their communities better, and research showed us they were right to expect it. Service learning and community engagement proved themselves to be powerful tools for student learning and development.

Those programs and opportunities remain important, but our students are telling us they are not enough. Students will increasingly be looking for opportunities to engage in advocacy, activism and direct participation in the democratic process. The challenge for colleges and universities will be meeting those expectations in a way that is consistent with the obligation of institutions of higher education to be spaces of openness for a wide range of viewpoints. Our programs will need to emphasize listening across differences and working together to find common solutions to the challenges we face.

And student expectations are not limited to what the institutions they attend offer to them. Students have expectations of how colleges — and their leaders — will act. Research has shown that high-impact experiences such as service learning and engaging with diversity have positive effects on students — as long as students believe their institutions are committed to those values. We all know from experience that students are highly sensitive to hypocrisy. If they believe that institutions are telling students to be active participants in making the world better but are creating policies that don’t live up to those values, they will be turned off.4

Living up to students’ expectations

So what can colleges and universities do? While there are many specific answers to that question involving curriculum, co-curricular programs, research and institutional operations, they all boil down to one answer: A college or university that wants to connect with the students who will shape the future will get in the habit of asking whether everything it is doing is oriented toward improving the world. Have we designed our curricular and co-curricular programs to develop students who will make the world better? Does our research answer questions that matter to communities in our region and around the world? Do our purchasing practices reflect our stated values? How about our decisions about real estate development, employment practices, admissions and financial aid?

The savviest campuses build comprehensive plans to advance their public mission — and they make those plans visible. Over the last three years, Campus Compact has helped more than 100 colleges and universities build Campus Civic Action Plans to articulate how they plan to make good on the values they espouse. Each of these plans is unique, reflecting the assets, challenges and opportunities of the institution itself and the communities to which it is connected. What all of the Campus Civic Action Plans have in common is a clear and public connection between what the institution says it stands for and the real steps it will take to turn the talk into action. Public plans create accountability — the most powerful antidote to cynicism.

Young people remain open to learning when they see committed adults ready to engage with them. At the same time, they quite rightly see adults as responsible for causing — or failing to address — the challenges that will define the next several decades. If we want students to see colleges and universities as places to develop themselves for the future, higher education leaders will need to shape their own actions and those of their institutions in ways that match up to the students’ highest aspirations.

1Young People Dramatically Increase their Turnout to 31%, Shape 2018 Midterm Elections, CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) 
2CIRCLE Poll: So Much for Slacktivism, As Youth Translate Online Engagement to Offline Political Action, CIRCLE
3CIRCLE Poll: Ahead of 2018 Midterms, A New Generation Finds its Political Voice, CIRCLE
4You Expect What? Students’ Perceptions as Resources in Acquiring Commitments and Capacities for Civic Engagement, Barnhardt, Cassie L., et al., Research in Higher Education

About the Author

Andrew J. Seligsohn is president of Campus Compact, a national coalition of 1,000 colleges and universities dedicated to the public purposes of higher education. Before joining Campus Compact in 2014, Seligsohn served as associate chancellor for Civic Engagement and Strategic Planning at Rutgers University–Camden, where he worked across the campus to develop the University’s engagement infrastructure to maximize community impact and student learning. Seligsohn previously served as director of Civic Engagement Learning in the Pace Center at Princeton University and as a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Hartwick College. Seligsohn holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Minnesota and a B.A. in modern intellectual history from Williams College.

Arielle Ahladianakis

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