CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

College- vs. Non-College-Bound Youth: Is the Civic Participation Gap Widening?

November 4th, 2011
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In the current issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence, Amy Syvertsen, Laura Wray-Lake, Constance Flanagan, Wayne Osgood, and Laine Briddell analyzed annual survey data collected as part of the Monitoring the Future Survey to trace high school seniors’ (age 17-19) civic and political participation from 1976 through 2005 .

The results confirmed the existence of a large class divide in civic participation. Young people bound for four-year colleges were consistently more engaged in politics, both conventional and alternative, and volunteered more often in their communities than those heading to two-year colleges or those with no plans to attend college. These results hold even after controlling for gender, race, and are consistent over time.

In addition to empirically documenting this divide, the authors also present compelling evidence that the gap in community service and voting are widening. Prior to 1990, community service levels were relatively stable, differing in level only, for all three groups. However, from 1991 onward youth with four-year plans showed a large and steady increase in community service compared with the smaller and more volatile increases for youth with two-year and no college plans. The institutionalization of graduation mandates for service likely accounts, in part, for the overall increase, while unequal access to opportunities to learn about and practice citizenship likely explain the growing divide .  A similar trend holds for the chasm in youths’ intentions to vote: High school seniors bound for four-year colleges are increasingly more likely than their peers with two-year college plans to say they will cast a ballot.

Figure 1: Trends in Youth’s Intentions to Vote in Public Elections by College Aspirations

Figure 2: Trends in Youths’ Community Service by College Aspirations

This growing civic inequality is a concern in a democratic society, as it suggests we are preparing an elite to participate in public and community affairs while others are left behind. Since organizations and institutions are the main venues through which younger and older generations get recruited into civic life, more attention should be paid to the institutional opportunities available for youth who do not continue on to four-year colleges.

— Amy Syvertsen, Ph.D., Search Institute


1.  Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2009). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2008. Volume I: Secondary school students (NIH Publication No. 09-7402). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse. For more information on this study, visit the Monitoring the Future web site:
2. Kahne, J., & Middaugh, E. (2008, February). Democracy for Some: The Civic Opportunity Gap in High School. Working paper 59. College Park, MD: Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

4 Responses to “College- vs. Non-College-Bound Youth: Is the Civic Participation Gap Widening?”

  1. Ben Hartford Says:

    Intention to vote is not as helpful as actual voting. Is there information regarding level of education and actual voting habits, interpolated back through time?

  2. CIRCLE Says:

    Hi Ben. Thanks for your message. We do have longitudinal data on voting rates. I will email you to follow-up.

  3. Matt Robinson Says:

    The widen civic inequality gap is cause for concern if not alarm.

    It would be interesting to see if, in the years after 2005, presumably when the instructional practices driven by the policies of No Child Left Behind where more fully in place, the trends change.

    Test prep does not leave much time for schools to devote to preparing students for meaningful civic participation.

    Of course, 2007 and 2008 brought a presidential election that engaged youth and encouraged community engagement, so the numbers probably trend up with the gap shrinking just a bit. Does anyone have studies on this?

  4. Erik Johnson Says:

    Does anyone happen to have, or know where I could find the figures for total number of high school seniors headed in each direction? I remember hearing that numbers of students planning on a four-year college experience are rising, so I’m just wondering how that would affect the total numbers of youth intending to vote/participating in community service, rather than looking at the percentage of each category.