<< The Body Politic
“That’s not democracy.”
Wednesday, September 5th, 2012
With all the recent emphasis on using college as a “crucible moment” to teach students to become civically engaged, it becomes easy to forget that many citizens, whose engagement should also be valued, do not participate in higher education. A recent report by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) looks at the civic engagement of this population:
Survey data show that civic engagement is highly unequal among young Americans. One of the primary divisions is between young people who have ever attended college and those who dropped out of high school or did not continue their educations beyond high school (about 42 percent of the resident youth population in 2012). National survey data show that a majority of non-college youth are basically disengaged from traditional civic life, with 37 percent completely disconnected, and only 13.5 percent engaged in forms of conventional civic leadership. [...]
We conducted semi-structured conversations with non-college youth to we explore why they do or do not participate. In all, we interviewed 121 non-college youth in 20 focus groups in 4 cities between fall 2008 and June 2010. Compared to the national population of non-college youth, participants in our study were much more likely to be urban and African American. Here are some of our findings:
- Most participants saw concrete barriers to civic engagement. For example, they perceived that institutions did not want their engagement, that their communities provided few positive role models and that they lacked the money and connections to contribute.
- Many participants believed they had skills to make a difference in their communities, but they lacked opportunities to use those skills.
- Nevertheless, many participants served or helped other individuals in their own families and neighborhoods, although they did not think of these forms of helping behavior when asked about community-level change.
- Participants were highly aware of social and political issues, concerned about them, and likely to discuss them critically in their own social networks, even if they did not see how they personally could address such issues.
- A small minority of participants had been recruited into civic organizations, and they generally expressed strong support for these groups. Most other focus group members believed that such institutions were missing in their communities and reported never having been asked to participate.
- Overall, this study finds that non-college young people lack organized and institutional opportunities to address large-scale social issues—reinforcing previous research. They often report helping individuals, and they discuss social issues in their own networks, but generally they do not connect these activities to making systemic or society-wide changes.
Read the whole report–including a set of recommendations–here.