10/19/2012 04:47 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Public Colleges Play Vital Role in Fostering Active Participation in Democracy

The early twentieth century American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey devoted much of his life's work to the principle that educational institutions play a critical -- even the central -- role in fostering a healthy, democratic society. His sentiments, expressed nearly a century ago, still ring true: "The trouble... is that we have taken our democracy for granted; we have thought and acted as if our forefathers had founded it once and for all. We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew in every generation."

Public colleges and universities, in particular, play a significant role in preparing each generation of students to become knowledgeable citizens, able to actively engage in community and civic life. In addition to providing the content knowledge and skills students need to prepare for their lives in the workforce, we have an even greater historic mission: educating our young people so they are informed citizens capable of fully participating in public life. This mission is more important than ever as we approach the 2012 presidential election.

College life exposes students to democracy in action. They are challenged by new thoughts and ideas and must learn to consider and respect multiple opinions and perspectives, both in the classroom and in other campus interactions with their peers. Through participation in a club, student organization, or volunteer project, they discover the value of working together for a common goal.

At William Paterson University, we have embraced citizenship and civic engagement as a core value, challenging our students, faculty, staff, and alumni to recognize their responsibility to improve the world around them. As part of our University's core curriculum, our undergraduates are required to take a three-credit course focused on community and civic engagement, providing an opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge needed to work on civic and societal issues.

Today's explosion of information technology -- from Facebook to Twitter and YouTube -- gives young people new and evolving opportunities to make their voices and opinions heard and, when guided, to engage more fully in public life. Despite such opportunities, young people still lag behind their older counterparts when it comes to the most foundational and direct way they might have an impact: in the ballot box. Those who are 18 to 29 continue to turn out in lower percentages than those age 30 or older. In 2012, 46 million 18- to 29-year-olds are eligible to vote, fully one-quarter of the population. While youth voting has been on the rise in several election cycles, reaching 51 percent during the presidential election in 2008, turnout dipped again in state and gubernatorial elections in 2009 and in the midterm elections in 2010.

Research shows that young people are more likely to register to vote, and to vote on Election Day, when approached by a peer. Through our campus chapter of the American Democracy Project, we have launched a campus- and community-based voter education campaign, and are committed to registering 1,000 new voters ages 18 to 24. Our student-led Youth Vote 2K12 team reaches out to students on campus, especially in our First-Year Seminar classes, as well as to students in Paterson high schools to discuss the importance of voting, and the power they have to affect the political process. Young people today face critical issues, including record high unemployment and student debt and health care and environmental worries. Educating our youth about the power and importance of voting reminds us of John Dewey's wisdom: democratic participation is not automatic; it must be taught and, if our democracy is to thrive, the generational compact must be renewed.

Despite living in a global era, it is in the local and regional arenas where citizens are constituted, problems framed, questions posed, and theoretical concepts tested in real-world context and time. It is crucial for all of us, whether on a college campus or in our communities, to encourage our young people to register to vote and participate in this essential right as an American citizen. The future of our democracy depends on it.