Young voters have trouble getting motivated about politics

MILWAUKEE – The results of recent surveys of young people’s political savvy are grim: Just one-third of college students said it’s important to stay current with political issues and events. More than half of people aged 15 to 25 didn’t know that only citizens can vote in the United States.

Faced with such troubling statistics, senior scholars with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a report Tuesday with strategies to help college educators teach political topics without imposing their own views.

As the nation rolls along toward the 2008 presidential election, the report’s authors urged educators to invite political officials to class and require students to do internships where they’ll learn about politics in a real-world setting, for example.

More broadly, they pushed colleges and universities to provide students with incentives for political involvement similar to those offered to get involved in community service. More college students are volunteering than in years past, but those activities have not necessarily encouraged students to be politically engaged.

“Many campuses make individual volunteering an institutional priority, but we could not find a single campus that made political engagement a priority,” said Thomas Ehrlich, a senior scholar with the Carnegie Foundation and former president of Indiana University.

Young voters’ political savvy is particularly important in Wisconsin, where their turnout rate has been among the highest in the nation. In the 2004 presidential election, 63 percent of eligible voters ages 18-24 in Wisconsin cast ballots.

And according to a recent poll by Rock the Vote, WWE’s Smackdown Your Vote! and Sacred Heart University, young voters will likely have a healthy turnout in the 2008 presidential election, much as they did in 2004 and 2006. The poll said students and young voters are motivated by the war in Iraq, health care, the economy and the cost of education.

The Carnegie study’s authors spent three years looking at 21 programs they said successfully focus on political learning, including one involving students at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis.. They surveyed roughly 500 students in 17 states at the beginning and end of the courses and found that, on average, students had significant increases in their political understanding, skills, motivation and expectations for future political action. Students with little initial interest in political issues made especially substantial learning gains.

And while the students changed in their enthusiasm for politics, they didn’t change their party identification or political ideology, the study found.

“Education for political learning has to be unbiased and deeply committed to political open-mindedness,” said Anne Colby, senior scholar with the Carnegie Foundation and former director of the Henry Murray Research Center of Radcliffe College. “Students are very turned off to extreme partisanship.”

The courses ranged from single-semester and summer programs to one- and two-year programs involving courses and other activities. In studying these programs, the Carnegie study drew up five strategies for getting students more politically savvy, engaged and motivated:

– Invite speakers to the classroom, such as elected officials or grassroots leaders.

– Use political debate in the classroom.

– Use political action projects where students work together to plan and carry out political action.

– Place students as employees in nonprofits or government agencies that are working on the issues they’re working on in class.

– Have students reflect in a structured way on their experiences through writing and discussion.

Viterbo students participate in a semester-long course in Minneapolis through the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs, an organization of 17 liberal arts colleges, universities and associations dedicated to education for social justice.

Through seminars, field study and an internship in the Twin Cities, students explore poverty and inequality in urban America and the strategies aimed at addressing them.

Amanda Lube, a recent Viterbo graduate who participated in the program, did an internship with St. Stephen’s Human Services, where she worked to make the delivery of social services to homeless people more efficient. She felt she studied poverty from every angle, every lens.

Lube said that before her semester in Minneapolis, she was a knee-jerk liberal. Now that she’s learned about the complex systems that contribute to poverty, she’ll assess political candidates in a more sophisticated way.

“The things we learned in there, they should absolutely be required for any social science program at a university,” said Lube, who majored in sociology. “It definitely helped me realize how complicated politics are _ how really hard it is to make change with the system that we have right now.”

Carnegie researchers found that colleges provide several incentives for students to pursue community service: It’s a plus on college applications, students can earn credits for it and still others are required to do it to graduate. But schools don’t provide the same incentives for students to get politically active.

Recent studies show that today’s college students are more involved in service than in years past. A 2005 report from the Corporation for National and Community Service found that volunteering among college students increased by about 20 percent between 2002 and 2005.

Students aren’t as engaged in politics, however. A 2006 nationwide survey of 1,700 young people aged 15 to 25 by the Center for Information ‘ Research on Civic Learning ‘ Engagement found that 56 percent did not know that only citizens can vote in the United States.

It’s not that there aren’t opportunities to be politically engaged on campus, said Mariel Ponseti, 22, a biomedical engineering student at Marquette.

“I’m not involved at all . . . I guess I never really find time for it,” she said. “There are opportunities. There are college Republicans and Democrats, and I know they said in the school paper they had people come and put on a debate . . . so there are opportunities if you want to be involved, I just don’t, really.”

When Carnegie researchers asked students why so many of them are likely to participate in community service but not in politics, they found some familiar explanations: They don’t feel they can make an impact. The rewards are unclear. They don’t trust politicians.

“But somewhat to our surprise, students have received very little opportunity, very little encouragement to become politically involved,” Ehrlich said.

That resonated with Hannah Behm, 21, who is studying biomedical engineering at Marquette. She isn’t politically active, but she has volunteered for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“Marquette as a university focuses a lot on the services aspect, and I don’t see them pushing any political involvement,” Behm said. Still, she had a hard time picturing a way for the school to induce political activity without being partisan.

“I see (politics) as more of a personal thing,” she said.

UWM history major Matt Hammes, 21, said he feels the political system benefits a limited number of people.

“I’m pessimistic about the political system,” he said.

Beyond such pessimism, Hammes said, there are also “a lot of distractions: entertainment, mainly, and a lot of apathy as well.”

But for Megan Warner, 20, a Marquette junior majoring in economics, it just doesn’t make sense not to get involved in politics. She wasn’t old enough to vote in the last presidential election, so she didn’t pay as much attention as she should have. But now, she said, she’s watching and thoughtfully considering her decision for 2008.

“We keep being told that we’re the future of the country, and if we’re not involved now at age 20, who’s to say we’re going to be involved at age 40?”