college campus protest
Credit: Fibonacci Blue/flickr

When Benjamin Franklin founded the Academy and College of Philadelphia—later renamed the University of Pennsylvania—his aim was not just to provide promising students with useful educations. It was also, in the words of the school’s charter, to impress upon the “tender minds” of its students “the several dutys they owe to the Society in which they live” and to “render them serviceable in the several Publick Stations to which they may be called.”

Check out the complete 2018 Washington Monthly rankings here. 

Similar language about civic responsibility is embedded in the founding documents of Princeton, Brown, and hundreds of other colleges that were created across America during and after the time of the Revolution. It can also be found in the establishing papers of the great land-grant universities created in the wake of the Civil War. That includes the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College—today’s Ohio State University—whose trustees wrote in 1873 that the new school’s mission was to educate students not only as “farmers or mechanics, but as men, fitted by education and attainments for the greater usefulness and higher duties of citizenship.”

The federal government endorsed that civic ideal in 1946, when a commission formed by President Harry Truman recommended that civics be embedded throughout all college curricula and concluded that “[w]ithout an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure.” In 1971, eager to give protesting college students a bigger stake in the political system, Congress and the states ratified the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which lowered the voter age from twenty-one to eighteen. And in 1998, Congress reaffirmed colleges’ civic mission yet again by mandating that universities distribute voter registration forms to all students.

Despite these lofty intentions, however, Washington has never put much muscle behind its demand that the American higher education system live up to its civic duties—and, not surprisingly, the system mostly has not. Only 17 percent of colleges and universities have complied with the voting registration requirements of the 1998 law—at least as of 2004, the last time anyone bothered to check. A current House bill would eliminate those requirements altogether. Meanwhile, several GOP-controlled states over the last decade—most recently New Hampshire this summer—have passed laws making it harder for college students to cast ballots. (Under a Texas law passed in 2013, student IDs can’t be used for voting purposes—but gun permits can.) The predictable result of this indifference, indeed hostility, to student voting is that fewer students vote. The 2014 midterms saw the lowest rate of turnout among eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds ever recorded.

The press shares some responsibility. None of the major publications that rank colleges and universities use any kind of civic engagement data in their metrics—with one exception. Since 2005, the Washington Monthly rankings have factored in the degree to which colleges and universities encourage their students to give back to their country and communities, such as by providing matching funds for AmeriCorps or offering community service opportunities to work-study students.

Perhaps the ultimate test of whether institutions are living up to their civic mission would be the voting rates of their students. Unfortunately, those numbers aren’t publicly available. But this year, for the first time, we’ve included the next best thing in our main college rankings: four measures of a college’s commitment to encouraging voting by its students. An institution receives one point in the “service” portion of our rankings if it has signed up for or participated in Tufts University’s National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE). This program helps colleges calculate their precise student voting and registration rates by combining national voting records with enrollment data. A college receives a second point if it has signed up for the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, an effort that uses NSLVE data to help colleges create plans to boost their students’ voting rates and civic participation. An ALL IN school gets another point for releasing its NSLVE data publicly, and a fourth point for making its ALL IN action plan public.

It’s a motley group of institutions—ranging from Ivies like Harvard and Brown to lesser-known publics like Kennesaw State University. Still, there is a pattern. More than three-quarters of the top schools are public universities, even though private nonprofit schools make up the bulk of the rankings overall. That’s a clear sign that these colleges are more in tune with their democratic missions.

Equally telling are the colleges and universities that didn’t come close to making the list. MIT and Caltech—schools that sit atop the U.S. News & World Report rankings—earned the lowest possible score (zero) on our civic engagement metrics. Other prestige institutions scored a lowly one point, including, Princeton, Georgetown, Columbia and UC Berkeley. NSLVE and the ALL IN Democracy Challenge reached out to all of these schools. Perhaps they had other priorities.

It doesn’t take much for a university to have a profound effect on the civic engagement of its students. Since voting habits tend to crystallize in young adulthood—vote in one election, and you’re far more likely to do so again—colleges and universities have an unparalleled opportunity to create voters not just for the next election, but for life. The colleges that invest in student voting aren’t just helping their Washington Monthly rankings—they’re helping the country.

Due to a data categorization error, the original version of this story listed 21 colleges that did not have perfect 4-out-of-4 scores. Those colleges have been removed from the list. We regret the error. 

Saahil Desai

Follow Saahil on Twitter @Saahil_Desai. Saahil Desai is a politics editor at the Atlantic. He was digital editor at the Washington Monthly from 2016 to 2018.