The likelihood that a college student will make their way to the polls this November may have a lot to do with their major.
In a first-of-its-kind study released last week, the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University found that the voting rates of college students varied greatly according to their majors, or fields of study. Education majors had the highest voting rate in 2012’s general election, with 55 percent; engineering and math students had the lowest rate, at 35 percent.
“Voting is a matter of learning,” Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, said in an interview. “We see disparities in learning as evidenced by these numbers.”
The analysis, labeled the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement, encompassed 7.4 million students at almost 800 higher education institutions across the country. Released May 31, it’s the first time so many enrollment records have been acquired and matched with the relevant voting records, Thomas said. Although voting records are public, enrollment records are not. The National Student Clearinghouse, which maintains a database on behalf of education institutions, matched the student and voting records and shared that information with the researchers.
When it was election time, it was definitely a point of conversation among the peers in my program.
Jennifer Hollander, an education major and graduate of the University of Miami
“We are surprisingly archaic when it comes to the technology behind voting,” Thomas said. “Prior to 2012, (the study) would’ve been impossible given the sophistication and the comprehensiveness of the (voting) records.”
While other students also voted above the average rate – with 49 percent of humanities majors and 47 percent of health majors casting votes in 2012 – education majors were by far the most likely to head to the polls.
“When it was election time, it was definitely a point of conversation among the peers in my program,” said Jennifer Hollander, former president of the Future Educators Association at the University of Miami. The education major, who graduated this year, reported voting in the 2012 election, which means her records were among those analyzed in the study.
Potential explanations for this discrepancy are varied. One possible reason is education majors often go on to teach government and other social studies, so they’re more inclined to be politically active than other college students, some students speculated.
“All my education-major friends were specializing in social studies, and they were most definitely more likely to vote,” said Justin Child, an education major at participating institution Pennsylvania State University. He said he’d also voted in the 2012 election.
Another potential explanation for the discrepancy is that education majors tend to be more inspired by “issue advocacy campaigns,” Mike Burns, national director of the Campus Vote Project, a campaign aimed at getting more college students to the polls, said in an interview. Affected more directly by federal- and state-level decisions concerning public school systems, it’s likely that teachers-to-be have a more personal stake when issues such as class size and teachers’ pay are on the ballot.
This echoes the experience of Washington State University graduate Carly Wesley. Graduating last month with a degree in education, the now-teacher said that though she did not vote in the 2012 elections, her classmates’ investment in specific issues had inspired her to vote in 2014.
There were things that were going to be passed that I cared about, like establishing smaller class sizes.
Carly Wesley, Washington State University graduate in education
“There were things that were going to be passed that I cared about, like establishing smaller class sizes,” Wesley said in an interview, noting that she and many other education majors she knew had campaigned on social media for various issues, changing their profile pictures in support of different initiatives.
Although the results remain uncertain, one takeaway is clear: Students in the science, technology, engineering and math fields must turn out to the polls in greater numbers or else risk long-term ramifications for their chosen careers and even the nation at large, Thomas said.
“They’re invisible to the policymakers because they’re not on the voter rolls,” Thomas said. “So by not voting, they get ignored.”
A low voting rate may mean that lawmakers choose to sideline students in the STEM fields, Thomas said. It could also point to a sinking likelihood that those pursuing engineering and math degrees will go on to hold political positions.
“Voting is a gateway to all sorts of political engagement, including active policymaking,” Thomas said. “If you don’t have people (in Congress) who understand the science behind things . . . that has clear implications for policy.”
But it’s not only science and math majors. College students at large possess political engagement levels that are anemic at best, with an average voting rate of 35 percent – almost 20 points below the national average of 53.6 percent.
“The big thing for us is there is still a lot to be done,” Burns said. “We’re still leaving a ton of students not getting engaged.”
Alhough this is nothing new, the study – and those touting it, such as Burns – are urging colleges now more than ever to impress on students the importance of civil engagement. Whether it’s through curricula tailored to teach the relevance of policy or campus political events addressing issues that affect every major, institutions are being asked to help their students to the polls this November.
“There are almost 20 million” college students, Thomas said. “They could elect the next president. They don’t, because they don’t vote at high enough rates, but if they mobilized, and thought about it, they’re quite powerful.”