As HEA Turns 50, A Reflection on Voter Registration on College Campuses

by Kristen Muthig, Communications and Policy Manager

Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the Higher Education Act (HEA). This landmark law helped improve higher education by providing federal resources to colleges and universities and offering loans and scholarships to students. Congress has repeatedly reauthorized the Act, and its policies and programs tremendously improved higher education in our country. In addition, the HEA also charges colleges and universities to distribute voter registration forms to students. Registration and voting is a strong indicator of overall student civic engagement, which many colleges and universities acknowledge as part of a well-rounded college education.

Campus Vote Project and many other partner organizations have emphasized the obligation created by this section of the HEA to encourage campuses to do more to engage students in their broader campus communities by voting and participating in the elections process. Not only is it a good way for students to become active citizens, but by helping students register and understand how to access the ballot, colleges and universities can fulfill the charge set forth by the HEA.

There are a variety of challenges to employing a robust campaign to engage student voters and follow the HEA requirement, but there are ways to overcome them.

Challenge #1: Resources. Budgets are always tight. Taking advantage of online means like email, social media, and the college’s existing website and communications tools are a cost-effective way to deliver voting and civic engagement messages. Students are often first time voters and new to the process and may not understand the different rules, deadlines, and avenues for registering and voting. Sending reminders, links to forms, and information about voter ID requirements and early voting can help bridge the information gap students often face when registering and casting a ballot; which can all be done with little to no cost.

Challenge #2: Knowledge of Election Rules. Every state has different regulations about deadlines, voter registration drives, and ways voters may cast a ballot. Administrators are experts in educating students and operating effective campuses. They are not necessarily experts on election administration. This is where partnerships with local election officials and nonpartisan organizations that regularly work with voter registration and elections is crucial. There are many resources available, whether it’s a question about getting paper voter registration forms to put in a campus packet, providing the right link to online voter registration, or providing information for a campus election website.

Challenge #3: Developing Informed Voters. Colleges can provide the tools needed for students to be educated voters, understand what the issues are, what the offices on the ballot control, and what candidates stand for. There are many resources that allow campuses to remain nonpartisan while still encouraging students to do their research before casting a ballot. The best source is often local boards of elections, local election officials, and secretary of states’ offices. Their voting guides show what offices are on the ballot and often give ballot language for any bonds, referendums, amendments, and other initiatives. Part of the purpose of higher education is to develop critical thinking skills. These can be applied by students so they can evaluate the partisan messages often conveyed around an election and help them consider both sides of an issue or all candidates before voting. The goal isn’t to tell students how to vote, but to give them the resources so they can make informed decisions on their own.

The HEA has expanded higher education opportunities for the past 50 years by providing federal funding and resources to institutions and young people. Its section dedicated to voter registration is a reflection on the importance of voting and of the role colleges and universities play in providing registration materials to students.

For more information on the HEA voter registration requirement see this Dear Colleague Letter issued by the Department of Education on the subject in 2013.

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