A new BestColleges survey reveals distrust of the U.S. electoral and political systems among college students, as well as a lack of civic education.

Only 31% of College Students Believe 2020 Will Be a Free and Fair Election

Just Half of Students Believe Their Education Prepares Them to Vote


  • While 81% of college students are registered voters, only 73% plan to vote.
  • Just 36% of college students in our survey feel represented in national elections.
  • Only 54% of college students believe their education prepares them to vote.
  • Racial minorities in college feel less represented on the ballot and are less likely to vote.

In the midst of a pandemic, struggling economy, and rancorous election year, American college students have had their faith shaken in public institutions. According to a new survey from BestColleges, only 31% of young college-goers believe 2020 will be a free and fair election.

The survey, conducted September 10-15, sought to gauge the political attitudes, voter preferences, and voter registration statuses of college students between the ages of 18 and 23. All respondents were enrolled in undergraduate programs at universities, community colleges, or vocational schools at the time of the survey. Of the 1,002 students polled, 81% are registered voters — but only 67% of those registered plan to vote this November.

There could be several reasons why young, educated Americans strongly distrust the 2020 election. For one, in an election year when most Americans are likely to vote by mail, the Trump administration has made concerted efforts to undermine confidence in mail-in voting.

Less than half (41%) of those polled reported the presence of a candidate who represents their political beliefs.

At the same time, college-aged voters have a long history of avoiding the ballot box — or the mailbox, as may be the case this year. Although young adults tend to be politically active in important ways, this demographic historically votes in low numbers. In fact, voter turnout among 18-to-29-year-olds in the United States is one of the lowest in the world.

Even among the 73% of college students in our survey who plan to vote in the 2020 election, actual turnout could be much lower. Indeed, almost 5% of those students hadn't yet registered to vote but intended to do so before election day.

Whether or not they are registered, voters' intentions mean very little in terms of electoral outcomes. In 2016, for instance, although 86% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 intended to vote, only 43% followed through.

The BestColleges survey could help explain why: Only 1 in 4 college students (26%) reports trusting the American political system as a whole, and just 36% feel represented in national elections. In addition, college voters may simply be disillusioned with the candidates on the ballot, with less than half (41%) of those polled reporting the presence of a candidate who represents their political beliefs.

The fact that only 1 in 3 college students feels represented in national elections, and even fewer report trusting the American political system, may help explain why so few college students think the 2020 election will be free and fair.

So why is there so much distrust and apathy among young voters? Ultimately, college students and those in their age group may not feel they have an impact on, or that they are impacted by, election results. A little over half (56%) of the college students surveyed believe their vote matters; slightly less (52%) agree the presidential election will have a direct impact on their day-to-day lives.

College Students May Lack Confidence to Vote in 2020

Seeing these results, political pundits and ardent social activists might be shaking their heads in disapproval. But the truth is that low electoral participation by college students and other young Americans may have much more to do with poor education and low voter confidence than it does political apathy.

Just over half (54%) of college students agreed their education had prepared them to vote.

The BestColleges survey seems to support this conclusion. When asked whether their education thus far had prepared them to vote, just over half (54%) of college students agreed. Twenty-two percent of respondents disagreed, and 24% were neutral. Only 58% agreed voting is worth the time and energy.

One area where college students may lack sufficient education is voter registration. It's well known that college voters face a variety of barriers to voting that other demographics do not. For example, college students are more likely to be stymied by complex voter registration rules since they may lack appropriate ID and stable state residency.

Moreover, college campuses are normally hot spots for youth voter engagement, and the coronavirus pandemic has hampered active, in-person voter registration efforts on college campuses.

"It's striking that half of all college students feel as though they lack the necessary education to vote," said Melissa Venable, Ph.D., a college instructor and online education advisor for BestColleges. "This shows a lack of voter confidence, particularly when it comes to the actual process of voting."

What's even more striking is that college students who are racial minorities were far less likely to agree that their education had prepared them to vote than their white peers. Specifically, only 48% of Black/African American students and 44% of Hispanic/Latinx students believed their education had prepared them to vote.

“Colleges around the country may need to think about how they can encourage students to become active participants in the voting process.”

— Melissa Venable, Ph.D., Online Education Advisor for BestColleges

While most students feel unrepresented by the candidates on this year's ballot, Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx college students are around 10% less likely to agree that there is a candidate on the ballot who represents their political beliefs. Furthermore, compared to white students, all other racial and ethnic demographics are 10% less likely to vote in 2020.

"These demographic differences could reveal important disparities in civic education in the United States, either at the K-12 or collegiate level," Venable suggested. "It's especially disappointing to see that this problem is more pronounced among certain demographics of college students. Colleges around the country may need to think about how they can encourage students to become active participants in the voting process."

College Students and the Responsibility to Vote

Distrust of the American political system has a long history and crosses generational and partisan lines. According to Pew Research Center, the American public's overall trust in the government has been trending downward for decades, regardless of age, race, and party affiliation.

While college students have little faith in the electoral process and the candidates on the ballot, many respondents reported feeling it was their civic duty to vote in 2020. In total, 18% of college students reported that a sense of civic responsibility or having their voice heard was motivating them to cast their vote.

“It is extremely important to vote as it is my civic duty and one of the ways I can influence the government.”

—BestColleges Survey Respondent

"It is extremely important to vote as it is my civic duty and one of the ways I can influence the government," wrote one respondent. Another echoed this sentiment: "It is my one opportunity to voice my opinion of what kind of leadership we should have in this country."

November 3, 2020, is likely to be a nail-biting event for most Americans — and one that might drag on well past election day. But with 61% of 18-to-29-year-olds concerned about the moral direction of the country, it's as important as ever for college voters to mobilize around their shared values, register to vote, and make their collective voice heard.




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Methodology

The survey was conducted September 10-15, 2020. All respondents were fielded by Lucid LLC. Survey participants included 1,002 college students nationwide. Respondents were 18-23 years of age; attending a community college, trade/technical school, or college/university; and pursuing an associate, bachelor's, or trade/technical degree.

Feature Image: Liliboas / E+ / Getty Images