This post is co-authored by Arthur Levine and Diane Dean, a professor of education at Illinois State University. Together, they are authors of Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Students, published by Jossey-Bass/Wiley.
In October, four presidential debates will take place on college campuses around the nation -- an important choice of venue. College students are a critical voting bloc in a presidential election that's almost upon us, constituting one out of every eleven voting-age Americans. Think about it this way: In 10 of the 12 presidential battleground states, the numbers of college students are larger than Barack Obama's overall margin of victory in 2008.
Both campaigns need to figure out the youth vote. The Obama campaign is actively courting these young voters, just as in 2008, while the Romney campaign needs to cut into the President's 2008 margin with this group. The real question, however, is whether these young voters will vote at all in 2012. So what is it going to take to get them to the polls and get their votes?
Consider these surprising findings from research we recently conducted for our new book, Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Students.
- A majority of students who describe themselves as liberals support capital punishment.
- Most conservative students favor handgun control.
- Today's college students support affirmative action, gay marriage, and immigrant guest worker programs.
- These same students also favor deporting illegal immigrants and the death penalty.
These students don't fit either party's received wisdom about what voters want. If either campaign can effectively mobilize them, college students may well decide the election. They can be an electoral powerhouse -- but they believe government and politics are broken.
As our research shows, students are pessimistic about the future and politically disengaged, but far from apathetic. They are issue-oriented, but not ideological. Their mantra is "we want change," but they reject the red-meat orthodoxies offered by both sides.
Three out of five (62 percent) say government is too quick to raise taxes to support social programs. Even more reject the notion of raising taxes to reduce the federal deficit. But on issues that are important to students, they are willing to make exceptions. For example, 63 percent say they would be willing to pay more taxes to support energy conservation and protect the environment.
If there's one issue that unites students this election year, it's the economy. Our research shows significant increases in the numbers of students temporarily dropping out of college because they couldn't afford to stay, working longer hours to earn tuition money, living at home because it's cheaper, and taking fewer credits to save cash. The causes of student protest have also changed; more than half (55 percent) now focus on tuition and fees.
Though they are pessimistic about the nation's economic future, nine out of 10 students are optimistic about their personal futures. Three out of four expect to be at least as well off as their parents.
The apparent contradictions among these views would make it easy for a campaign advisor to throw up his or her hands in frustration. But this year, with the race coming down to just a small handful of states, that's a luxury neither candidate can afford.
And it's not only the sheer numbers of college students that make them an electoral force to be reckoned with. Sixty-five percent of college students are involved in some kind of community service, and they have broad communication networks: The average student has 241 Facebook friends, with whom they are in contact at all hours.
That commitment to action and deep interconnectedness makes college students a potent force. But to tap into this generation's energy and drive, candidates must offer more than rhetoric. That is, in order for students to commit to a candidate, that candidate needs to commit to making students' lives better across a range of issues, including college affordability, employment, and easing the crushing load of student-loan debt. Any candidate who's counting on students to help carry the day on November 6 needs to show not only that he has a handle on important issues and challenges, but also that he has a workable plan for fixing them.
The four debates on college campuses will create opportunities for the candidates to lay out their plans -- but they will have to do much more. Cynical students expect to hear specifically how the candidate will accomplish each goal. In 2012, neither mudslinging nor abstract calls to idealism will earn a candidate the college student vote. If what they hear is not transparent, compelling, and addressed to their own current and future needs, they will stay home on election day.