Spring 2000 Youth Survey - Summary of Results


April 11-20, 2000

A study by The Institute of Politics
Harvard University



In 1972, 50% of eligible voters aged 18-24 cast a ballot in the Presidential election, according to a recent study by the National Association of Secretaries of State.

By 1996, the number of young people voting for President was down to 32%, according to the same study. This project is an effort to understand why political participation among young people continues to decline and what might be done to reverse the trend.

At its most basic, this survey is intended to provide the framework for a plan of action to increase the number of young people who are involved in the American political process. Citizens of this generation take an approach to public service that is distinctly different from that of previous generations. Very little research exists on this subject.

There is a gap between the way students perceive public service and the way it is traditionally discussed among politicians and, more generally, the public. Moreover, students are distrustful of the political institutions that remain broadly powerful in bringing about widespread social and economic change. In order for the college-age generation to put its own stamp on the public dialogue, students must individually and collectively be willing to participate in the political process. The Institute of Politics is interested in clearing a path to greater political engagement among today’s young people.

This study also identifies factors that contribute to student involvement in politics and community service, and it examines and tests courses of action for increasing political engagement.



The survey was created over a period of twelve weeks by a group of Harvard college undergraduates, IOP staff members, and John Della Volpe, president of SWR Della/Volpe, a Boston-based opinion research firm.

Two focus groups were conducted on March 8, 2000 at Cambridge Focus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Each group consisted of ten undergraduates from Boston- area colleges and universities. One group was composed of students who identified themselves as very active in politics or community service; the other group consisted of students who said they were not active or minimally active in politics or community service.

Using material gleaned from these focus groups, the IOP team developed the survey instrument. The survey was administered via telephone first to a random sample of Harvard undergraduates, then to a national sample of undergraduate college students. A total of 800 telephone interviews were conducted for this survey. Respondents were sampled from a national database of college students. Interviews, which lasted 15.25 minutes on the telephone, were conducted between April 11 and April 20. The margin of error for the entire sample is plus or minus 3.45 percent based on a 95 percent confidence level. The margin of error is higher for sub-samples.


Working Group:

Trevor Dryer ’00-’02
Erin Ashwell ‘02

Daniel Fernandez ’03
Megan Sibole ’03
James McElligott ’03
Rahul Rohatgi ’03
Clarke Tucker ’03
Aalap Mahadevia ‘03
Sandhya Ramadas ’03 Kara Shamy ‘03

Senior Advisor: John Della Volpe
SWR/Della Volpe

IOP Staff Advisors:
Alan K. Simpson
Catherine McLaughlin
Executive Director
Anne K. Aaron
Director of Outreach
Bethany Wilson
Communication Assistant for Special Projects

This survey was sponsored and funded by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University (IOP).

The Institute of Politics was established in 1966 with an endowment from the John F. Kennedy Library Corporation to inspire undergraduate students to enter careers in politics and public service, and to promote greater understanding and cooperation between the academic community and the political world. The Institute offers a wide- ranging program for students including internships, Forum events and speakers, visiting and resident fellows, study groups and conferences intended to provide opportunities for interaction with the men and women who shape politics and public policy.




Community volunteerism is high, but involvement in political organizations is low among college students.

Of the students surveyed, 59.5% are or have been involved in a community service activity during the past twelve months. But only 15.9% of respondents have joined a government, political or issues-related organization during the same period, and 6.5% have volunteered or plan to volunteer on a campaign this year.

Students overwhelmingly prefer community volunteerism to political engagement as the better way to solve local and national problems. Both men (83.5%) and women (86.5%) agree that community volunteerism is the best way to solve problems facing their communities. When it comes to problems facing the nation, more women (64.2%) than men (56.5%) believe community volunteerism is the best way to approach important issues.

Students have little trust in federal and state government.

Nearly two-thirds of students (63.9%) do not trust the Federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Nearly half of college students (48.8%) do not trust their state government to do the right thing all or most of the time. But trust in student government is much higher. Nearly two-thirds of students (64.1%) trust their college student government to do the right thing all or most of the time, and nearly as many (60.1%) feel the same way about their college or university administration. Just over half of respondents (58.6%) trust their local or city governments to do the right thing all or most of the time.

While trust in the Federal government is low across all races and ethnicities, whites and Hispanics exhibit higher levels of trust in state and local governments than Asians and African-Americans.

Students feel that elected officials are motivated by selfish reasons, and that political candidates, campaigns, institutions and the media are not concerned with what they think.

Nearly three-fourths (72.1%) of those surveyed agree that “political candidates, campaigns, and institutions do not seem concerned with what students think about the major political issues.” An even greater number (74.3%) feel that the media is not concerned with students’ opinions on the major issues.


College students generally feel disconnected from the political system and are dissuaded from pursuing political activities because of a number of self-reported barriers.

These barriers include:

  • a perceived lack of knowledge about the issues
  • a lack of understanding about how to get involved
  • a lack of enjoyment in the political process

Eighty-seven percent of survey respondents agree that “I feel I need more practical information about politics before I get involved.” Asians (63.6%) and African- Americans (64.0%) are much more likely to strongly agree with this statement, compared with whites (46.2%) and Hispanics (43.3%). In addition, women (57.2%) are more likely than men (40.8%) to strongly agree with the statement.

Eighty-six percent of students agree that “volunteering in the community is easier than volunteering in politics.” Additionally, while “enjoyment of activity” is cited by 97.2% of respondents as an effective motivator in getting them to take part in an extra- curricular activity, only 53.1% support the notion that “political activity is enjoyable,” and only 7.1% strongly agree with this statement.

Factors that motivate students to take part in activities other than school or work are largely tangible, personal, and goal-oriented. They include:

  • Personal enjoyment
    52.5% cite “involvement of friends” as very effective in motivating them to become involved in an activity, and 69.4% feel that the “enjoyment of the activity” is a very effective motivator.
  • Making money
    59.8% of students cite the “likelihood of making money” as a very effective motivating factor, whereas only 38.6% agree that “giving back to the community” is a very effective motivator. A higher percentage of Asians (78.8%) and African- Americans (73.3%) than whites (56.5%) believe the likelihood of making money to be a very effective motivating factor. African-Americans (54.7%), women (47.0%) and people who live in cities (46.4%) agree that “giving back to the community” is a very effective motivating factor, compared with whites (35.6%), Asians (33.3%), men (30.2%) and those living in suburbs (33.6%).
  • Gaining academic credit
    50.3% of respondents say “gaining academic credit” is a very effective motivator. Women (55.5%) are more likely than men (45.0%) to be strongly motivated by the availability of academic credit as an incentive to become involved in activities.


Students have strong opinions about what can be done to remedy low rates of political participation among members of their generation. Based on the results of this survey, the following measures are likely to elevate rates of political engagement among students:

1. Demystify the Process

  • 92.0% of students feel an effective way to motivate a greater number of students to public service and politics would be “if the process of registering and voting by absentee ballot were made easier so that students can vote from college.”
  • Enabling citizens to vote via the Internet would increase the percentage of college students who vote in elections by approximately 10%. The option to vote via the Internet would increase the percentage of Asians who definitely plan to vote by 18.2%, Hispanics by 16.6%, whites by 10.5%. The Internet voting option would not change the likelihood that African-Americans would vote. However, the percentage of men voting would increase by 12.7%, and women voters would increase by 7.2%. Democratic turnout would increase 6.3%, Republican turnout would increase 12.8%, and voter turnout among independents would increase 8.7%.
  • 86.2% of respondents believe that an “easy-to-find website dedicated to providing students with political information, including ways they can get involved” would motivate students to become more involved. Women (41.2%) are more likely than men (33.2%) to identify this as a very effective solution.

2. Show students that politics is an effective way to make concrete changes.

  • Nine in ten (90.0%) students believe greater awareness of real-life examples showing how students have made a difference would be an effective way to motivate students to engage in politics and public service. In particular, Hispanics (60.0%) find this a very effective way of motivating students, compared with whites (36.7%), and Asians (33.3%). More women (47.0%) than men (31.0) find this a very effective solution.

3. Provide incentives.

  • After “enjoyment of activity,” “ability of making money” emerges as the second- strongest response from among a list of possible motivators for college students. Creating partnerships between state or local governments and universities that enable students to participate in public service activities for academic credit (94.7% effectiveness rating), and forgiving loans or providing signing bonuses to graduates who commit to government work (88.0% effective) both receive significant support from survey respondents. African-Americans are the most enthusiastic about loan forgiveness (69.3% very effective), compared with 42.0% of whites.
  • Not surprisingly, self-interest is also a motivating factor. Seventy-seven percent of students who have volunteered on campaigns believe strongly in the effectiveness of loan forgiveness programs and signing bonuses for government service. Of course, campaign volunteers probably are more likely than the general population to enter government service.

4. Meet the candidates

  • Students who have met an elected official are twice as likely to be involved in political groups and organizations (19.6%) as those who have never met an elected official (8.6%).
  • More than nine out of ten respondents (93.2%) believe an effective way to get students more involved in politics is to allow them more direct contact with political candidates, campaigns and institutions.
  • 87.2% believe a Presidential debate that deals primarily with issues students care about would be an effective way to get more of their peers involved. Hispanics (66.7%) are more likely than whites (41.3%) and Asians (25.0%) to view this as a very effective solution. Additionally, a higher proportion of those “definitely voting” in the upcoming election (48.0%) believe it is a very effective solution, compared with those “less likely” to vote (35.9%).


Today’s college students are not an apathetic generation. They are engaged in their communities and are interested in serving the public. As evidenced by their high degree of involvement in community service activities, college students are interested in making positive change. However, today’s students do not see the political process as an agent of change. They believe community service is a more effective way to improve their communities and their country.

At a very basic level, students are distrustful of government’s institutions and leaders. Students need to be convinced of the efficacy of politics as an agent of community change. Furthermore, the political process lacks two important components that community service provides to students who are seeking to participate in public service enterprises: structural support and immediate and tangible results. First, students need structural support for their political interests. Even students who are already involved in the political process note that if they received more financial or academic support they would increase their political participation. Community service has become compulsory in many high schools, both for those who aspire to attend a selective college or university and for those who simply wish to meet their high school graduation requirements. Many students first get involved in community service because they “have to,” but they end up staying involved because they want to; they enjoy it. During their initial involvement, volunteers have mentors, workshops and often training sessions to help them understand how to become involved and how to be an effective volunteer. It is more difficult to find such financial or structural support for college students interested in pursuing politics.

Second, students stay involved in community service because they can see positive change; the activity is immediately gratifying. A student can see the results first- hand when she teaches someone to read or prepares food for the homeless. It is more difficult to see the effect that legislation, court rulings, and spending programs have on the same people.

Making participation in the political process easier, more accessible and more fulfilling will engage a greater number of students. In addition, through technology, partnerships and incentives it will be possible to increase the number of college students who are involved in politics and public service in the short term. The ultimate objective of this effort, however, may not be fully realized unless today’s students are not only involved in the political process but given meaningful responsibilities that have positive, demonstrable impact. Only at such levels will students be able to see the effect that new ideas and energy can have on politics, government and people.

The mission of the Institute of Politics is to inspire young people to public service in its broadest sense. This survey should serve to clarify the extent to which students currently overlook politics as a form of public service, and to provide all who share the Institute’s mission with a framework for understanding how this generation might be motivated to greater political participation in the future. Indeed, these results make clear the importance of showing students that politics is a practical and productive way to effect change, and that it is a noble and honorable form of public service.