How Will College Students Vote in 2022?

As if democracy depends on it, according to the latest Harvard Youth poll. But other studies show these voters may lack motivation to head to the polls for the 2022 midterm election.
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  • According to the Harvard Youth poll, 45% of traditionally-aged college students believe democracy is in trouble or failing.
  • Nearly two-thirds of college students also believe that democracy is not working.
  • A separate study found that young voters feel less motivated to continue voting, despite record 2020 turnout.

College students aren't too confident about the current state of democracy, according to a recent Harvard Youth poll.

The poll surveyed more than 2,000 young Americans aged 18-29 and broke down their responses by individuals in college, not in college, and those with a college degree.

At least 45% of college students said they believe democracy is in trouble or failing. Although an equal number of students said it is healthy or somewhat functioning, six in 10 students (62%) said democracy isn't working as well as it should be.

Just under a third of students (27%) additionally believe there's a more than 50% chance they will see a second civil war in their lifetime.

Students' pessimistic outlook on democracy and its current state mimics broader views held by Americans of all ages. According to a recent NPR/Ipsos poll, 64% of Americans believe democracy is "in crisis and at risk of failing."

Despite this negativity, more students are hopeful than fearful about the future of America (56% vs. 43%). And they're clear about what they believe will make the country stronger.

Students Prioritize Economy, Unification, and Healthcare

Students believe that strengthening the economy, uniting the country, and improving healthcare are the top three factors contributing to a successful presidency. A third of students also believe that improving the country's public education system is a top factor that contributes to presidential success.

Percentage of college students who selected these factors as among their top three criteria for defining a successful presidency
Strengthening the economy 57%
Bringing the country together 46%
Improving healthcare 41%
Improving our public education system 33%
Addressing climate change 31%
Reducing income inequality 31%
Ensuring social justice 29%
Improving America's standing on the international stage 22%

Source: Harvard Youth poll

Interestingly, factors like climate change and social justice fell lower on students' list of what they consider makes for a successful presidency, despite these two factors being attributed to motivating young voters to head to the polls during the last election.

Despite having a set of clear presidential priorities, most students (50%) want their elected officials to compromise or "meet in the middle," even at the expense of their policy preferences.

Motivation to Vote May be Lacking in Young Americans

More than a third of surveyed students (39%) in the Harvard Youth poll said they will definitely vote in the 2022 midterm elections. An additional 21% reported that they probably will head to polls this November.

However, a recent All In Together poll conducted last fall found that only 35% of young Americans aged 18-29 are "very motivated" to vote again. An even smaller percentage (28%) said they are "almost certain" to vote in 2022.

This comes as a surprise considering the rise in young voters during the last few elections. In 2020, half of all young people aged 18-29 cast a ballot in the general election. This was an 11 percentage point increase from the previous general election.

According to the Harvard Youth poll, only about a quarter of students (24%) regret not voting in the last election. Forty-five percent of students who did not cast a ballot have no regrets about it.

The Harvard Youth poll and All In Together poll are critical bellwethers for the 2022 midterm election in part because traditionally aged college students are a historically underpolled population. Polls tend to only sample likely voters and don't encompass the views of those who may be likely to vote, but unlikely to respond to polls. This was seen in both the 2016 and 2020 elections.

What we know for sure is that all eyes will be on young voters this fall and their choices will have the power to make an impact.