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Higher Education Can Drive Civic Engagement

President Mary Lou RetelleFifty-five years ago, President John F. Kennedy famously used his first speech as commander-in-chief to implore upon young Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

That call to action drove civic engagement for the Baby Boomer generation for decades to come. Men and women signed up for the Peace Corps, the military, community service organizations, and opportunities of all shapes and sizes in order to improve our society.

But on the eve of electing a new president, it’s time for a call to action to a new generation.

Today more than ever, there are many opportunities for young people to check out from community action and stay isolated. We live in a world that is more connected than ever and our country’s young adults are eager to take advantage of new opportunities, making them more transient in their communities and in the workplace.

Studies show that Millennials are waiting longer to get married, have children, and buy a home. So, while the world may be smaller for Millennials, all of these factors combined reduce their civic engagement at the local level.

It’s difficult for young people to worry about school overrides and property taxes when they don’t have any intention of putting down roots. While Millennials are often praised for their embrace of volunteering for social change, they avoid the mechanics of local, state, and national government that drive our society.

This is evident in the way we vote.

At the local level, a recent study on mayoral voting in five major cities showed that Millennials were being outpaced by seniors at the ballot box by a ratio of 10 to 1. At the national level, an October CNN/ORC poll showed that an astounding 50 percent of Americans aged 18-34 are not enthusiastic about voting for president – the highest cohort of any age group.

As a college president, my most important goal is reversing this trend in civic engagement – we must find new ways to turn the “me” generation into the “we” generation.

Respecting the importance of civic involvement is an integral component of a well-rounded education – ensuring that students grasp the vital role that community institutions and the workings of government play in their lives.

Education is strongly linked to civic engagement. Some indicators show a college graduate is four to five times more likely to engage than someone without a high school diploma.

There are a number of ways that higher education can step up to build civic engagement:

• Civics Education: The Joe Foss Institute is currently working on an initiative to make passing the U.S. citizenship exam a high-school graduation requirement in all 50 states by 2017. That’s a laudable goal, since it is the same test that immigrants must pass before they can become citizens. The principle is even more important: our high school and college students need a more comprehensive civics education so that they understand their role as citizens.

• Active Citizenship: A number of colleges, including Tufts University, have created programs to encourage students to take on community-building roles, giving college credit to students for working in the government or public sector.

• Incentivize Public Service: The U.S. Military and Peace Corps have an extensive array of incentives to encourage young people to serve. This same tactic needs to be a part of our college program, and it’s a key reason why Anna Maria College has partnered with Quinsigamond Community College on the Higher Education and Active Responsiveness through Transfer (H.E.A.R.T.) Initiative. It’s simple: choose a major that helps you toward a career as a police officer, firefighter, or social worker and we’ll hold down your tuition costs. These are important careers that produce engaged citizens who spend every day building up their community.

Next month, a deeply divided country will head to the polls and choose between two leaders who have proposed starkly different directions for our country. Now more than ever, we need every citizen engaged and ready to do their part in deciding our future. Although these two candidates are both seniors, we will rely on Millennials to guide this country for years to come.


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