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Ranking the Schools that Create Citizens out of Students

It’s easy to get a little cynical about college rankings. Most of the time, they just aren’t that reliable or useful for prospective students, using inconsistent data or simply focusing on things that just aren’t central to students’ aspirations, like over-the-top amenities. But the newest rankings out of Washington Monthly magazine did something innovative that caught our attention – factoring in whether a school encourages their student body to vote.

Using data from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) – the most comprehensive data set on student voter turnout based on over 1,100 participating campuses and 10 million student records – Washington Monthly evaluated each school on its voter engagement efforts. The rankings take into account including whether they participate in the NSLVE study, if they voluntarily make campus student voting rates public, whether they create an action plan to improve student voting rates, and if they participate in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. Lots of different schools earned a boost from this new voter engagement metric, while others – even some unexpected ones – earned a “0” score on voter engagement.

Colleges have a huge opportunity to foster and encourage political learning and civic participation and to help create lifelong voters out of their student body. With 20 million current college students, this voting bloc could make a big difference in the national landscape. Right now, many college administrations don’t have enough resources and support to mobilize their campuses – besides all the effort they put in for their love of democracy, of course.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) includes a provision that colleges make a “good-faith effort” to distribute voter registration forms, but the provision lacks clarity, support for the administrations, and accountability measures. The Help Students Vote Act, introduced earlier this year, would build on the HEA provisions to provide clearer guidelines for administrators and incentives for schools that go above and beyond to encourage voting.

For now, what separates the schools that are democracy champions from the ones that are falling behind is an enthusiastic administration and student body. Many of those gungho administrators and students have joined YI as a part of the Students Learn, Students Vote Coalition (SLSV), which promotes civic learning and democratic engagement on campuses across the country. The 300+ members of the SLSV Coalition are gearing up and getting ready to activate their campuses for the 2018 election. Together, we might just get some of the colleges and universities in the coalition a boost in next year’s Washington Monthly rankings.

College rankings aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Washington Monthly is striving to improve the offerings by counting the factors that create strong students who are also strong citizens. We hope other media outlets, tech companies, and data hubs will follow suit in giving students the info they need about colleges and their outcomes, and that means civic outcomes too.