Student rates

“Make their voices heard.” Behind a Funder’s Efforts to Boost Student Civic Engagement — Inside Philanthropy

After years of covering higher education philanthropy and donor efforts to overcome financial barriers to entry, I consider myself lucky to have attended a four-year college at a reasonable cost. I suspect many readers over 40 feel the same way. But something has changed dramatically in the past two decades.

For William MosesManaging Director of the Kresge Foundation Education Program, the policy factors underlying the predicament of higher education can be traced to an intergenerational redefinition of the social compact.

“We have shifted the cost of higher education from the institution and the government to the person and the family,” he said. Previous generations who viewed higher education as a public good have given way to those who believe that “individuals should pay for it – and that’s a huge shift”.

One of the ways Kresge seeks to address and even reverse this change is to give voice to students who are currently bearing the cost of exploding tuition fees and crushing student debt. To build momentum around this goal, the foundation recently announced a series of grants totaling $1,025,000 to student-centered civic engagement initiatives at five organizations that prioritize low-income and students of color, especially those attending historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions, and colleges community.

The grants build on Kresge’s work to drive student engagement over the past decade and come less than two years after student turnout in record numbers in the 2020 election. Democracy, however, was short-lived. In the past year and a half, 47 states have proposed 361 measures to restrict access to the ballot, according to the Brennan Center for Justice vote bill trackingemphasizing the urgency of Kresge’s work.

Each of the foundation’s grantees “contributes to an important dimension of advocacy, policy, research and awareness at a time when we are witnessing deliberate and systemic attacks on the right to vote,” said Kresge Education Fellow. Joselin Cisneros. “These barriers make it difficult for students to vote in presidential and local elections, undoing the progress that many leaders and civil rights organizations have made with increased student enrollment and voting.”

“Their problems will become more important”

Moses traced Kresge’s support for student-centered civic initiatives to 2012 when he awarded a grant to Young Invincibles, an organization created in 2009 to amplify youth voices in the health care reform debate. . (“Invincible youth” is an insurance industry term to describe people between the ages of 18 and 29 who forego health insurance because they perceive themselves to be, say, invincible.)

After the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, the organization branched out into other areas such as civic engagement and college affordability. In 2017, Kresge gave Young Invincibles $200,000. It was around this time that the foundation began to step up its support for other engagement-oriented organizations, with a focus on students attending community colleges and minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

“The genesis of this work is the idea that we want to hear student voices,” Moses said. “By voting, their issues will become more prominent among policy makers. Whereas if they don’t vote, their issues just aren’t as important. Moses cited research from Tufts University showing that top concerns for people aged 18 to 34 include the cost of a college education, student debt, and climate change.

Other organizations focused on student engagement that have received Kresge’s support over the course the last years include donor collaboration on youth organizing and campus voting project.

Overview of selected beneficiaries

The five recipients of Kresge’s recent round of support are Civic Nation (Washington, DC), Fair Elections (Washington, DC), Jolt Initiative (Austin), Andrew Goodman Foundation (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey) and Tufts University Institute. for Democracy and Higher Education (Boston).

Moses explained that Tufts has become the go-to source for student engagement and voting data. For example, last October, the university’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) found that the student vote had increased by 14 percentage points to 66%, in the 2020 elections. The jump surpassed that of all Americans, which jumped six percentage points from 61% to 67%, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

“The fact that students, often younger and voting for the first time, turned out at rates comparable to the general public is nothing short of astounding,” said IDHE Director Nancy Thomas.

Moses also cited the work of civic nation, which works with an extensive network of national partners. One of Civic Nation’s programs is the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, a national, nonpartisan initiative that supports colleges and universities working to improve civic learning, political engagement, and voter turnout. The organization has received support from the Democracy Fund, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Mellon Foundation, which has just published a call for concepts to colleges and universities exploring curricular projects in civic engagement and suffrage, among other areas.

Another Kresge grantee, Jolt Initiative, is committed to increasing civic participation among Texas Latinos. Its funders include the Novo Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and the Libra Foundation. Kresge’s grants are funded through a cross-foundation effort led by its education program in partnership with its Arts and Culture and Detroit programs.

“Systemic attacks on the right to vote”

The efforts of Kresge and other civic-minded funders made me wonder if we would be saddled with tuition fees and out-of-control debt if students and recent graduates had been a more organized electoral bloc. and more formidable in the last 20 years. Just compare this demographic with, say, the elderly. Every time a politician makes even a vague suggestion that we should review Social Security benefits, all hell breaks loose. If young voters had even half that kind of electoral clout, we might not be in the mess we are in.

We will never know if a more organized movement of students could have maintained strong public support for state institutions, but at the very least, the current situation suggests that politicians have generally ignored this demographic group. Every four years commentators have predicted a “youth surge” that never materialized – until 2020.

When I first saw IDHE’s data on student vote rates in the last election, I thought it was yet another manifestation of the “Trump bump” that has galvanized strong donor support in areas such as journalism and public media. Corn Director of IDHE Thomas attributed the increase in the number of young people and new voters to factors such as “student activism on issues such as racial injustice, global climate change, and voter suppression, as well as increased efforts by educators to reach out to students and connect them to voting issues and resources “.

This idea that educators do a better job of engaging and organizing students aligns with what Moses sees on the ground. He noted that Washington Monthly lists america best colleges for student voting as part of its 2021 college guide and rankings. “If you just look at the report, you’ll see Ivy League schools and community colleges, HBCUs and MSIs, all kinds of colleges that have chosen to do this work,” Moses said. “It’s something happening all over the map, which is very encouraging.” (Kresge financed Washington Monthly in support of its college guide and ranking.)

As the critical 2022 midterms approach, Krege’s initiative aims to ensure that 2020’s turnout isn’t a one-time blow. But he also sees his support as a financial bulwark against the proliferation of laws that threaten to restrict student access to the polls. “In state capitals across the country, the right to vote is under attack by voter restriction laws and unnecessary barriers to registration,” it read. Kresge press release. “Proponents say these new changes to election laws directly threaten to suppress voting for people of color, seniors, people with disabilities and students, all groups traditionally targeted by voter suppression.”

Redefining the social pact

Moses grew up in Alaska and attended college in California. He recounted how his stepmother, who is over 70, attended UCLA for free as a California resident. This generation believed that “we must provide educational opportunities because it is good for the country, the community and the state”, he said. Now the cost per academic year at UCLA for an in-state resident is a amazing $37,000 and change.

And yet, for all the problems with higher education, Moses argued that college graduates still have lower employment rates, live longer, earn more money, and are more likely to vote than those who don’t attend. . “There may be better options in terms of going to a public institution or a community college rather than a more expensive private school, and it’s certainly better to go to a non-profit rather than a for-profit college. lucrative,” he said. “Nevertheless, in almost all circumstances, the college degree is worth it for the student and the family.”

By amplifying student concerns, Kresge’s new engagement initiative seeks to galvanize a long-overdue redefinition of the social compact. “We think it’s important to look at the concerns of this generation of people, which will be different from those of people in retirement or those in their early 40s,” he said. “They have different priorities on what society should focus on, and we want to make their voices heard.”