Skip to content Skip to navigation

Clues to Increasing the Civic-Political Engagement of Demographically High-Risk Youth

Publication Authors: 
William Damon, Parissa Ballard, Heather Malin and Anne Colby
Publication Year: 

Paper Discussion Symposium: Friday, April 4, 10:35 a.m. to 12:05 p.m.
Is “Political Apathy” a Danger for Our Future Democracy? Possibilities for Better Educational Practices
Chair: Fritz K. Oser, University of Fribourg

Papers being presented:

  • William Damon, Parissa Ballard, Heather Malin and Anne Colby: Clues to Increasing the Civic-Political Engagement of Demographically High-Risk Youth

    Abstract: For several decades, observers of trends in democratic participation have expressed concern about the civic and political apathy of young people. Within the United States, this concern is especially acute in regard to less privileged segments of the population – low income youth, racial and ethnic minorities, and recent immigrants (a rapidly growing group) – who lie on the low end of what has been called a “civic achievement gap.” This paper reports results of a 3-wave longitudinal study of young people who were beginning their senior year in high school at Time 1 and had recently completed their first year post-high school at Time 3.

    The sample (N = 1578) was drawn from high schools in three geographic areas in California. Participants completed surveys at 3 time points, and a subsample of 50 (at T1) took part in in-depth interviews at Times 1 and 3. Just over ¾ were first or second generation immigrants. Forty-six percent were Latino/Hispanic, 26% Asian, 5% African American, and 6% white, non-Hispanic. The rest were mixed or “other”. Fifty two percent were female. The study investigated a wide range of civic and political behaviors and attitudes as well as motivations for and barriers to civic/political participation.

    Results indicate that, despite being members of demographic groups at high risk for civic disengagement, a significant majority were at least somewhat civically engaged at Time 1 (68.8%), and a sizeable minority (26.7%) were at least somewhat politically engaged. Preliminary results of longitudinal analyses indicate that participation rates are significantly lower at the end of the first post-high school year.

    The survey and interview data point to a number of educationally significant factors associated with greater civic and political engagement: (1) More highly engaged students tend to focus on issues that arise directly from their own experiences, such as immigration, school funding, and community resources such as access to public libraries. (2) School context matters – in schools that draw students’ attention to the local impact of recent budget cuts, for example, students are more likely to express concern about budgetary policies and to act on those concerns. (3) When adults or older peers pay attention to the particular interests of students who are beginning to show some civic concern and invite them into organizations and roles that address those concerns, civic/political participation is more extensive and robust. (4) When students leave high school, they often report difficulties connecting with structured civic opportunities, and their civic participation is reduced.

    These findings are consistent with prior research that highlights the importance of schools and colleges providing visible opportunities for student civic engagement and active efforts on the part of adults and older peers to actively invite young people into organizational settings that support engagement. The data also suggest that educators will be most successful in encouraging civic learning opportunities in stressing the particular interests and experiences of their students.

  • Wiel M. Veugelers: Possibilities and Constraints for a More Critical-Democratic Citizenship in Contemporary Education: The Role of Psychology
  • Joel Westheimer and Kristina R. Llewellyn: Beyond Facts and Acts: The Implications of “Ordinary Politics” for Youth Political Engagement
  • Fritz K. Oser: Civic Education in Times of Political Apathy