Updated: Sep 11, 2021
Students have historically reacted to social issues on and off campus through activism.
ifty-eight years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the first March on Washington, thousands gathered in the nation's capital to demand protections for voting rights and protest social justice issues.
Protesters at the August 28, 2021 "March On for Voting Rights" called for the expansion of voting rights and for the U.S. Senate to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021. The act, which the U.S. House passed last month, would restore key protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 weakened by two U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Political tensions raised by current social justice issues and ongoing attempts to limit voting rights are driving students across the country to take action and raise their voices. Student groups were among the 180 partner organizations that helped organize last month's march, and if history is any indication, there is a lot at stake for college students.
The History of Voting Rights Activism
The right to vote is a defining feature of American democracy, but voting rights have changed over time, and historically disenfranchised groups — most especially people of color — have been continually denied the right to vote.
From legal segregation to state-instituted poll taxes to literacy tests, people of color historically faced enormous barriers to voting. While the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920, Black and Indigenous women of color were largely excluded.
In the 1960s, marches, speeches, and sit-ins by civil rights activists led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected the right to vote for African Americans and banned racial discimination in voting laws and policies. In 1971, the 26th Amendment expanding voting rights to Americans 18 or older was ratified following a wave of student protests covering issues ranging from civil rights to the Vietnam War.
As voting rights continue to be eroded across the country, college campuses remain a center of awareness and action for students and activists alike.
What's at Stake for College Students?
Student civic engagement is an important mission for many colleges and universities. Historically, college aged adults have had lower voter turnout rate than older generations. However in 2020, Millennials and Gen Z were the largest share of eligible voters, and those college-aged voters are becoming increasingly more ethnically and racially diverse.
The expansion of voting rights and the elimination of voter suppression laws is of huge importance to college students. For instance, many voter identification laws stipulated that students must have one legal address, a huge hurdle for students who attended college out of state or for those who are transient.
Students can also find it difficult to access polling places, especially if their school is located in a low-income or remote area.
Additionally, college students are a formidable and racially diverse voting block, making them a target of state-level voting restrictrictions and increasing their awareness of state and federal legislation.
The policies of the Trump administration inspired many college students to become politically engaged and take interest in social justice issues. Data shows that the top political issues students care about today include college affordability, racial justice, climate change, gun control, gender equality, campus sexual assault, and healthcare.
How Students Are Making Their Voices Heard
There has been a resurgence of social and political activism at college campuses across the country that can be largely attributed to the growing inequality in educational opportunity.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, students were vocal on issues pertaining to college debt and racial justice. For instance, New York University students in 2013 held student-debt protests in Washington Square Park and took to Twitter with hashtags like #YouAreNotALoan to address the pervasiveness of college debt. In 2015, a series of protests, hunger strikes, and boycotts at the University of Missouri addressed that institution's racially hostile climate.
With many college campuses shuttered due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, student activism has gone digital to include petitions demanding tuition refunds and housing support. At the start of the pandemic, students at Pomona College were evicted from campus residence halls which left many students homeless and without reliable housing. Students organized protests, and a GoFundMe account to help those who have been displaced to find emergency housing.
Students at the University of Chicago also held a tuition strike urging that the institution cut tuition by 50% and waive campus fees during the pandemic.
Ways Students Can Get Politically Engaged on Campus
College campuses will continue to be microcosms of the larger society, and as our nation continues to be impacted by social, political, and economic turmoil, it's imperative that students raise their voices and stand up for their values. Here are three ways to get politically engaged.
Host a Voter registration drive on campus or on social media Want to encourage other students to exercise their right to vote? Hold a voter-registration drive on campus. Popular voter registration drives like #GetOuttheVote are campaigns that help increase voter turnout among populations that have traditionally had low voter turnout rates. AAUW has produced a student guide on how to organize a voter registration drive.
Become familiar with the issues impacting your college's community Consider hosting a candidate listening forum. They not only allow students to meet local candidates and learn about their platforms; they also provide the opportunity to familiarize themselves with issues impacting their local community and advocate for issues impacting their college community.
Join a student organization Student organizations are tackling issues from racial justice to campus sexual assault and are a great way to expand your network and engage in activism.