Measuring and Understanding Student Political Learning and Engagement

An update on Tufts University’s national voting study and political learning in higher education

eAIR spoke with Adam Gismondi and Nancy Thomas with the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education for an update on the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE).


eAIR: We interviewed you in 2013 and again in 2014 about NSLVE. Interest in the study must be up after this contentious and unexpected election. First, tell us how the study is going.

As you may recall, we figured out a way to “marry” enrollment and voting records in ways that fully protect student privacy. Institutions need to opt in, and I believe when we last spoke about 200 colleges and universities nationally had joined the study. I am delighted to report that we now have nearly 950 institutions in the study, representing all kinds of institutional types, geographies, and student populations served. It’s a stunning database for research – nearly 8.4 million college student records (all de-identified) for the 2102 and 2014 elections – and 2016 will be available later this spring. We’re excited to see whether students turned out more or less in 2016 – it could have gone either way.

eAIR: What do you do with the data?Student-Vote-Btn.png

First and foremost, we give participating colleges and universities individualized, confidential reports that contain data such as how many of their students registered to vote, how many voted, and then we can break that down by age, gender, race and ethnicity, class level, and field of study. It’s a great way for institutions to identity which of their students are politically engaged and which ones are less so (see a sample NSLVE report).

eAIR: What kinds of things are you learning?

The national average voting rate for an institution is only 47.6%. That’s less than we expected based on other studies, which rely on survey responses. We also see a large gap between certain majors. The discipline with the highest voting rate is education; STEM majors are the lowest. We need to focus on these low voters and find ways to get them involved in the political process. African American women vote at the highest rate among college students. We periodically publish infographics containing this kind of information.

We’re also looking more closely at colleges and universities with unpredicted high or unpredicted low voting rates. Over the past two years, we visited nine institutions that were diverse in terms of size, type (liberal arts, community colleges), location, and student populations served. Using qualitative methods, we conducted case studies of their campus climates for political learning and engagement in democracy. We’re in the process of releasing that data, and we hope institutions will find it useful for creating the kinds of institutional conditions needed for political engagement, a goal that became extremely clear during this past election season. 

eAIR: How are institutions using their data?

We hear from report recipients all the time, and we’re excited about what they are doing with the reports. Many are sharing the reports with faculty members, and faculty discuss them with their students. This is particularly valuable to disciplines in which the students are voting at very low rates. We know of students on two campuses who were so upset by their voting levels that they worked with local election officials to make voting easier. These are just a couple of examples. We published a short report on how institutions are using their data.

eAIR: What does the future hold for the study and your Institute?

We’re looking more closely at campus conditions; one thing that became very clear during this election is that the polarization that we see in public life affects students. One of our qualitative findings is that pervasive political discussions is an important feature of an institutional climate that supports political engagement. We publish materials to help colleges and universities engage in those difficult dialogues. And we’ll be doing more on this, through workshops and campus visits. We also host dial-in sessions for people who want to understand their data better.

eAIR: Are you still accepting new institutions to the study?

Absolutely! We are happy to be able to provide this service to institutions for free, and people love it because it is not a survey. Signing up is easy. Institutions simply download an authorization form and either fill it out online or email it to our office at Institutions must sign up by March 15, 2017.

It’s difficult to know when the reports on 2016 will be ready, but absolutely by the end of the summer. Questions can be directed to Nancy Thomas, Director of IDHE.

eAIR: Is there anything else you would like from IR professionals?

Yes! We want to hear how your institutions are using your reports. And tell us how we can be more useful to you.

How does your institution measure students’ civic learning and political engagement? How might NSLVE data be useful, or how has it already been useful to your institution? Share your thoughts and questions below.




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