In the 2018 midterm election, Gen Z college students came out in droves to vote, many of them for the first time. This year’s presidential election is expected to be no different. While college students have historically been a challenging demographic to get out to the polls, the current political climate around COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and other issues has made students more passionate about voting than ever before. The challenge for them is not the desire to vote but rather addressing the particular confusions of an election during a pandemic.
Relocations due to campus closures loom large for students in their voting plans. While most (81 percent) of the students our Barnes & Noble College Insights team recently surveyed were registered, 39 percent of the students planning to register are uncertain about where or how to do so. They question whether they should register in their home state in case they have to return home before election day, or on campus where they’re currently at. They’re also unsure about registration deadlines and shifting mail-in regulations which vary state-to-state. Even as 60 percent say they plan to vote early or by absentee ballot, 42 percent are concerned about the accuracy and trustworthiness of mail-in ballots. Broad distrust of the media — written news publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were designated as trustworthy by just 52 percent of Gen Z students — makes it less likely that news stories alone will clear up their concerns. Social media platforms, used by 67 percent of students to research candidates, fare no better. Notably, only 23 percent of students consider these platforms to be trustworthy.
The question of where college students can get reliable election information should be an easy one. Colleges and universities have historically played the role of educators in students’ lives in ways that go well beyond the classroom. Campuses are often seen as centers of activism — a place where students can first get involved in political organizations and movements. Over the years, though, the emphasis on civic education and participation has waned, with many students left to discover these issues on their own. The current divisiveness in our nation may also have schools more hesitant to get involved at this crucial turning point. When even stating how and where to vote can seem like a political stance, it can be easy to fall into the mode of “less is more” when it comes to election information.
The fact of the matter is that this year, more than ever, colleges and universities should provide resources to demystify the voting process and encourage students to participate in elections, local and national. That doesn’t mean that academic institutions need to push a particular candidate or agenda — though private institutions, depending on their focus, may. Public schools can remain nonpartisan while still playing a major role in informing students about the democratic process and their roles, rights, and responsibilities as citizens. Just as schools have aimed to provide up-to-the-minute information on COVID-19 updates and social distancing procedures for campuses, they should aim to provide students updates on shifting registration deadlines and nearby polling locations. They can help students stay better informed on the issues and candidates by helping them to identify non-biased news sources and providing guidance on how to avoid misinformation, which continues to grow more prevalent on social media channels.
Supporting election information means supporting student voices, and that is crucial as academic institutions continue to shift to more student-centric learning models. This year has shown both students and schools just how much government decisions can impact education. By ensuring students have all the information they need to vote, we can better ensure that their voices are considered when it comes to issues like funding for academic institutions, access for students across the digital divide, and student loan programs. These issues and more are likely to come up over the next few years, as the transformation of the higher education industry continues to accelerate under the pandemic. College in the year 2030 will likely look very different than what we see today and students, as well as faculty and academic leaders, should have a role in shaping that new vision.
Michael Huseby is CEO and chairman of Barnes & Noble Education (BNED), a leading solutions provider for over 1,400 educational institutions nationwide.