Political participation is critical for the legitimacy of democracy, yet we know surprisingly little about how political competencies develop and can be promoted in young adults. Many studies show low levels of political activity among young Americans, including college students and recent graduates. Although this is widely recognized as a problem, there is little research on specific experiences and practices that show promise for increasing political understanding and involvement among young people. In addition, much existing research on political life focuses on a narrow set of activities, especially voting, rather than on the multiple dimensions of responsible political engagement, dimensions such as the understanding, skills, and motivations that support and enhance many forms of active democratic citizenship. This article describes and shares initial results from a pre- and postsurvey used in The Political Engagement Project, a study of the effects of 21 different courses and programs on a diverse group of undergraduates at a range of colleges and universities across the United States.
Analyses of variance performed on surveys of 481 students conducted at the beginning and end of courses and programs show that educational interventions with a focus on political engagement can significantly boost many dimensions of democratic participation, including expectations for future political activity. On average, all students participating in the twenty-one interventions increased their political knowledge and skills. Other effects of courses and programs differed for students who began their programs with higher versus lower levels of political interest. For the group with lower initial interest, the interventions significantly increased students’ sense of identity as politically engaged persons and their expectations for participating in a range of political activities, with small to medium effect sizes (Cohen’s d = .24-.66). The group with higher initial interest experienced smaller but significant gains in understanding and skills (d = .12-.19). The results support understanding political engagement as a multidimensional set of inclinations, competencies, and behaviors. The results from this research also provide evidence that well-designed courses and programs can effectively promote these four key dimensions of political engagement in a diverse range of undergraduates without significantly changing students’ party identifications or their positions on a liberal-conservative continuum.