Over 30 people from Worcester State University, area colleges and schools, nonprofits, and city government gathered in the Student Center’s Blue Lounge the morning of Friday, September 23 for a conversation about engaging higher education in civic life.
“We educate for learning’s sake and to keep the economy strong, but also to teach our students how to become engaged citizens,” said WSU President Barry M. Maloney in his welcoming remarks.
Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty added that students at colleges and universities around the city “are truly assets to our community” and the higher education institutions work together with the city of Worcester on a variety of projects, including a recent mural project.
A panel of experts from universities around the state led the discussion: Corey Denenberg Dehner, director of the Worcester Community Project Center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University; and John Reiff of the Center for Civic Engagement and Service-Learning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
WPI’s center coordinates projects that last two to eight months and in seven-week increments, Dehner said. When students sign up for a project, they spend 40 to 60 hours a week working on it and don’t take classes. In addition to applying what they’ve learned in the classroom and lab, they learn firsthand how engineering projects can have economic, environmental, and social impacts on a community.
“The students come away with a new lens through which to see the world,” she said.
Thomas spoke of the current “period of recalibrating” civic engagement “around the mission of higher education.” What was based on volunteerism has morphed into community-based research, she said.
In spite of this, Thomas pointed out that students graduate from college knowing very little about civics.
The Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts has been monitoring college-student voting rates at colleges that have opted in to the study. So far, the institute analyzes the number of student voters who attend about 900 colleges and universities nationwide.
The national average voting rate for undergraduate and graduate students is 47 percent, Thomas said. At many colleges, only one to five percent of the students vote.
The more political discussions a campus has, the higher its student-voting rate, she noted.
Reiff, who works for the state Department of Higher Education as a liaison to public college and university campuses to help them build civic engagement into their curriculum, said that one purpose of higher education is to prepare students to take on the role of being informed citizens in their communities.
“A democracy needs its citizens to realize they can and should ban together to work toward the common good,” he said.
Massachusetts has the distinction of being the first state in the nation with a board of higher education with an initiative aimed at engaging every undergraduate in civic engagement, Reiff said.
The panel moderator, Mark Warren of the University of Massachusetts Boston’s John W. McCormack Graduate School, said that he’s working to develop civic engagement models that bring together experts, municipal leaders, community groups, and university faculty and students.
For civic engagement to take hold on campuses, colleges and universities in general need to reward community-based research and projects just as they do scholarly research, he said.
Update: WSU’s student voting rate of registered students increased from 72.3 percent in the 2012 election to 76.8 percent in the 2016 election. The number of students who voted in 2016 was 4,319, an increase of 759 students since the 2012 election. WSU’s 2016 voting rate was 12.8 percent higher than our peer institutions.