The Higher Education Act
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act (HEA) into law and with it created some of the most significant programs of the Great Society. Intended to decrease inequality broadly speaking, the law made higher education more accessible by providing more federally-funded grants for students, supporting programs that helped prepare low-income and first-generation college students for success in college, increasing federal aid to colleges that serve low-income students, and expanding low-interest student loans.
Between 1964 and 1996, voter participation rates among young people between the ages of 18 and 24 jumped from a high of just over 50 percent to a low of 36 percent in 1996. Historically, there has been a higher turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds in college compared to their peers not in school—about a nine percent difference. Moreover, citizens that are more educated tend to vote in higher rates. However, for too long, voter rates had been on the decline.
Recognizing the need to revitalize student participation in the democratic process, in its 1998 reauthorization of the HEA, Congress broadened the scope of the act to include, for the first time, a provision on student voting. Home to hundreds of thousands of students and dedicated to intellectual growth, Congress rightfully saw institutions of higher education as the key to increasing political engagement among young people. Thus, the 1998 amendments placed the onus on colleges and universities to expand access to voter registration information, making it easier for students on college campuses to exercise their right to vote.
More precisely, section 487(a)(23) of the HEA as reauthorized in 1998 specified:
(A)The institution…will make a good faith effort to distribute a mail voter registration form, requested and received from the State, to each student enrolled in a degree or certificate program and physically in attendance at the institution, and to make such forms widely available to students at the institution.
(B) The institution shall request the forms from the State 120 days prior to the deadline for registering to vote within the State. If an institution has not received a sufficient quantity of forms to fulfill this section from the State within 60 days prior to the deadline for registering to vote in the State, the institution shall not be held liable for not meeting the requirements of this section during that election year.
In 2008, Congress further amended this language to state:
(D) The institution shall be considered in compliance with the requirements of subparagraph (A) for each student to whom the institution electronically transmits a message containing a voter registration form acceptable for use in the State in which the institution is located, or an Internet address where such a form can be downloaded, if such information is in an electronic message devoted exclusively to voter registration.
The only colleges and universities exempt from the provision are those located in states that allow for Election Day voter registration, which include California (not implemented until 2018), Colorado, Connecticut, DC, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The new provision requires schools to protect students’ right to vote by making easily available the proper forms and paperwork for registering to vote and voting in local, state, and federal elections.
Successes Of The HEA And Its Amendments
Today, almost 20 years since the federal government demanded that campuses offer registration information, voter registration activists consider the HEA 1998 amendment a major victory.
Indeed, many universities have found creative ways to expand student engagement in the political process. Ohio Northern University and the University of Northern Iowa, for example, have hosted “Dorm Storms” and a “Voterpalooza” registration party, both designed to register large numbers of students to vote. In a similar vein, the University of Colorado Boulder organized an “Exercise Your Right to Vote” event, infusing Zumba and kickboxing with voter registration. At Northwestern University (NU), incoming freshmen are given voter registration toolkits during orientation with their student IDs. Students may register to vote in any of the 50 states, so that students from out of state are not disadvantaged.
Student organizations have also actively tried to increase voter turnout among students, creating user-friendly webpages with voting information, keeping students informed through regular emails, canvassing campus mailboxes, visiting classrooms, and posting informational fliers. In addition, national organizations like the Campus Vote Project work in conjunction with students and administrators on outreach activities.
Importantly, these efforts among students, national organizations, and colleges and universities have been shown to increase political engagement among students. At Northwestern University, which provides comprehensive voter registration information to all freshmen, over 90 percent of the freshman class is registered to vote by the end of the orientation period each year. More broadly, on campuses that participate, voter registration efforts can produce tangible results. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), in 2008, 70 percent of college students were registered to vote and 87 percent of registered students voted. In addition, CIRCLE found: “College students were over-represented at the polls in 2008, compared to the number in the general youth population. Enrolled college students made up 39% of the 18- to 24-year-old citizen population in 2008, yet made up 48% of youth who voted.” Though several factors likely contributed to more students voting, campus voter registration made a definite impact on young people’s ability to make it to the polls.
Limitations And Potential For Growth Of The HEA Student Voter Provision
Despite these gains, and the fact that efforts to increase voter registration information boost voter participation among students, many institutions of higher education are failing to meet the obligation set out by the 1998 HEA amendments. In doing so, these institutions are not only violating the law, they are also in effect denying potential young voters the information and resources they need to practice their most basic democratic right.
While the HEA provision mandates institutions of higher education participating in federal financial aid programs to provide or attempt to provide adequate voter information to students, the provision lacks any real enforcement mechanism. Some colleges, of course, have provided ample voter information to their students despite any real consequence for not doing so. But other colleges and universities have not, leaving their students without adequate voting information.
Lack of access to voter information and resources makes a difference. Two-thirds of students between the ages 18 and 24 who didn’t vote in 2010, for instance, cited a lack of information or resources to register, not apathy or cynicism, as reason for missing Election Day. If colleges and universities followed the HEA provision on student voting, students would have increased access to the voter information proven to show an increased likelihood in voting. However, because the HEA lacks the enforcement mechanisms necessary to ensure that all colleges will follow through with this, other avenues for increasing student voting should be examined.
Specifically, the Election Assistance Commission should work with the U.S. Department of Education to develop an advisory group to identify best practices in voter registration and civic engagement across diverse institutions of higher education. Institutions should include, but not be limited to: community colleges, schools that cater largely to commuter students, minority serving institutions, and online schools. The advisory group should include experts in civic engagement, school administrators, legal experts, and student advocates.
Upon completion, the U.S. Department of Education should disseminate best practices to institutions of higher education and make them available online. While this will not incentivize all schools to follow HEA regulations concerning student voting, it will certainly make it easier for colleges and universities to provide the resources their students need to vote.
Importance Of Millennials At The Polls
The Millennial generation is the largest generation our country has ever seen. In the year 2020, when all Millennials are able to vote, they will represent 40 percent of the voting age population. Furthermore, young voters represent an incredibly diverse cross-section of the American population. In the 2010 midterm elections, 14 percent of young voters were black, 15 percent Hispanic, and three percent Asian. Of the general electorate, 13 percent of voters were black, 10 percent were Hispanic, and three percent with Asian.
The Millennial generation will shape the future of our democracy, but some of this potential has gone untapped simply because young voters have faced barriers to civic participation. Despite efforts to ease the voter registration process, 18 percent of voters under age 24 do not have the identification, such as a driver’s license, required for voting in some states. Young people also tend to move across state borders more than older groups, often while pursuing higher education, which complicates voter registration.
While it is likely that new legislation will be necessary to overcome these hurdles, the HEA voter provision presents an underutilized standing policy that offers a great place to start. A future partnership among the Election Assistance Commission, the Department of Education, and an inclusive advisory group to uplift best practices can help diverse institutions determine the best ways to engage their student populations.