CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
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“That’s Not Democracy.” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way

CIRCLE is releasing a major new study today, “That’s Not Democracy.” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way. Many practitioners informed this project, which was in collaboration with the Charles F. Kettering Foundation.

Executive Summary |  Full Report

A vibrant and thriving democracy requires a deeply engaged and active citizenry. “Civic engagement” encompasses all the ways we identify and understand common problems in our communities, nation, and world. Robust civic engagement not only creates healthy societies; it benefits the individuals who engage, through the development of skills and knowledge, networks and relationships, and feelings of purpose and meaning.

However, survey data show that civic engagement is highly unequal among young Americans. One of the primary divisions is between young people who have ever attended college and those who dropped out of high school or did not continue their educations beyond high school (about 42 percent of the resident youth population in 2012).  National survey data show that a majority of non-college youth are basically disengaged from traditional civic life, with 37 percent completely disconnected, and only 13.5 percent engaged in forms of conventional civic leadership.

But standardized survey questions may not capture the contributions and opinions of poor and working-class youth, who may find words like volunteering and civic engagement inapplicable or confusing, even though they engage in their communities. Also, survey research is not ideal for determining why young people do or do not participate.

Thus we conducted semi-structured conversations with non-college youth to we explore why they do or do not participate. In all, we interviewed 121 non-college youth in 20 focus groups in 4 cities between fall 2008 and June 2010. Compared to the national population of non-college youth, participants in our study were much more likely to be urban and African American. Here are some of our findings:

  • Most participants saw concrete barriers to civic engagement. For example, they perceived that institutions did not want their engagement, that their communities provided few positive role models and that they lacked the money and connections to contribute.
  • Many participants believed they had skills to make a difference in their communities, but they lacked opportunities to use those skills.
  • Nevertheless, many participants served or helped other individuals in their own families and neighborhoods, although they did not think of these forms of helping behavior when asked about community-level change.
  • Participants were highly aware of social and political issues, concerned about them, and likely to discuss them critically in their own social networks, even if they did not see how they personally could address such issues.
  • A small minority of participants had been recruited into civic organizations, and they generally expressed strong support for these groups. Most other focus group members believed that such institutions were missing in their communities and reported never having been asked to participate.

Overall, this study finds that non-college young people lack organized and institutional opportunities to address large-scale social issues—reinforcing previous research. They often report helping individuals, and they discuss social issues in their own networks, but generally they do not connect these activities to making systemic or society-wide changes.

We offer insights into promising strategies for reengaging poor and working-class young adults. Many respondents expressed interest in education for younger people (most often their own children or siblings), including both K-12 schooling and community-based opportunities. Recruiting non-college youth into organizations that assist and improve education would be worthwhile. They felt that they owed the next generation help and guidance, and they personally valued making contributions. Opportunities to move from critical talk (which is common in their circles) to constructive collective action is the key to transforming both these individuals and their communities.

In addition, the new report offers:

  • An overview of national demographic and participation data for non-college youth
  • Findings from focus groups with a sub-set of non-college youth
  • Information about many of the leading organizations that civically engage non-college youth
  • Profiles of four organizations and their models for engaging and developing youth
  • Summary of other important research about what influences youth civic engagement and development
  • Recommendations for several constituencies, based on the above and conversations with stakeholders
Join a Twitter chat about this report on Monday, August 27th at 3pm EDT, using the hashtag #YouthTruth. Follow CIRCLE at @CivicYouth. CIRCLE is running a #YouthTruth campaign to counter myths about young Americans, such as the widespread beliefs that youth are mostly college students or that they have uniform experiences and attitudes as a generation. We’ll discuss reactions and implications from the report, answer questions and talk about what IS going on that people can support.


Why “Non-College Youth?

Studying the category defined as “non-college youth” is problematic for several reasons. First, this term is a negative definition, using a deficit as its basic criterion to describe people, even though they have knowledge, experience, and other assets.

We nevertheless see compelling reasons to focus on the non-college category. They are almost invisible in a society whose formal leaders and opinion makers usually hold college degrees. For example, reporters routinely equate college students with young people as a whole. College attendance is a powerful predictor of civic engagement, even when controlling for other factors. Finally, policies and strategies for engaging people in civic life must consider the institutions that can reach them.

Non-college young people are underrepresented in groups, meetings, projects, and elections. Their underrepresentation has grown more severe over the last four decades. Consequently, communities miss the potential contributions of large numbers of youth, and the youth miss opportunities to be nurtured and shaped into active citizens. Not only do they lose political influence and the capacity to improve their own communities, they miss the chance to develop the skills, relationships, and psychological benefits.

In fact, according to Nie, Junn, and Stehlik-Barry (1996, p. 31), the correlation between years of school and civic engagement is “the best documented finding in American political behavior research.”

This finding derives in large part from surveys of formal civic behavior. To examine this issue more fully, qualitative investigation is also important. Non-college youth might be engaged in ways that the standard surveys overlook. Also, it is not fully evident why years of formal education should predict civic engagement. That is not the case in other countries, such as India, where low-caste and poor citizens are more likely than middle-class citizens to vote (Pushpendra, 1999). Thus, it is important to find out more about the barriers to civic engagement for Americans who have fewer years of schooling and to look for alternate paths to being engaged that do not include college.

21 Responses to ““That’s Not Democracy.” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way”

  1. major new CIRCLE study on non-college youth « Peter Levine Says:

    [...] youth Posted on August 23, 2012 by Peter Today, CIRCLE released our study entitled “That’s Not Democracy. How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way.” It’s really the fruit of several years’ work, including focus groups and survey [...]

  2. New report shows youth who don't attend college less likely to be civically engaged | Latina Lista Says:

    [...] be civically engaged Marisa Treviño | August 23, 2012 | 0 Comments LatinaLista — A new study by the youth research organization, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning [...]

  3. Civic engagement among out-of-school youth: Join the #youthtruth conversation later today « Campaign for Stronger Democracy Says:

    [...] friends at CIRCLE have released a new report called “That’s Not Democracy: How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Wa…” One of the historic civic gaps has been between those who have attended college (typically [...]

  4. The League of Young Voters Education Fund » Blog Archive » Are non-college youth engaged in their communities? A new report has answers Says:

    [...] youth are less likely to be engaged in their communities than their non-college counterparts. But a new report from The Center For Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) finds that [...]

  5. NCDD Resource Center » “That’s Not Democracy”: How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way Says:

    [...] Resource Link: http://www.civicyouth.org/thats-not-democracy-how-out-of-school-youth-engage-in-civic-life-and-what-stands-... [...]

  6. That’s Not Democracy | The Commons @ KF Says:

    [...] new report by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), in [...]

  7. CIRCLE » “That’s Not Democracy.” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way | Citizens United Reporter Says:

    [...] on http://www.civicyouth.org Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in [...]

  8. NCDD Community News » Kettering’s Connections 2012 Now Available Says:

    [...] report, this one from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, produced in collaboration with the Kettering Foundation, examines the other side of college-age [...]

  9. Struggling Young Adults Pose Challenge for Campaigns | The Worthington Post Says:

    [...] a report released in August, researchers from the center found that the most important factor in explaining [...]

  10. Struggling Young Adults Pose Challenge for Campaigns - P501 NEWS - USA | P501 NEWS – USA Says:

    [...] a report released in August, researchers from the center found that the most important factor in explaining [...]

  11. Across the country, roughly 18 million young adults — more than 40 percent of eligible voters 18 to 29 — do not have, and are not now pursuing, college degrees. « jmhamiltonpublishing Says:

    [...] a report released in August, researchers from the center found that the most important factor in explaining [...]

  12. Senior Year Existential Crisis: Non-College Edition « oxypoliticselectionblog Says:

    [...] So are non-college-educated Millennials a lost cause? A report cited in the article says no. The CIRCLE report suggests that youth (young adults, actually) are most likely to vote if they are “personally and [...]

  13. Peter Levine on Super PAC game theory | anotherpanacea Says:

    [...] York Times article on non-college youth: Struggling Young Adults Pose a Challenge for Campaigns. CIRCLE’s report was the impetus for the article, and Levine is quoted: “Extensive research shows that if you [...]

  14. AEI Citizenship – What’s happening in the citizenship world? Says:

    [...] has shown that young people get involved when asked by someone whom they trust. As we show in our recent report, sometimes not being asked sends a message to young people that their voice and participation [...]

  15. Friday afternoon reading: October 14, 2012 | The Democratic Society Says:

    [...] CIRCLE » “That’s Not Democracy.” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands… How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life and What Stands in Their Way [...]

  16. They're young, they're angry, but will they vote? | September 20, 2012 | The New York Times | HT Politics Says:

    [...] a report released in August, researchers from the center found that the most important factor in explaining [...]

  17. Agents of Change: Teaching Civic Engagement through New Media | Composing Yourself Says:

    [...] Does it Matter? A recent study of college student voter turnout by the Tufts University Center for Information and Research on [...]

  18. Struggling Young Adults Pose Challenge for Campaigns - World Bad News : World Bad News Says:

    [...] a report expelled in August, researchers from a core found that a many critical cause in explaining low [...]

  19. school discipline in a democracy « Peter Levine Says:

    [...] authors cite our work on how schools that serve low-income and minority students suppress civic engagement. They then use [...]

  20. is the US a racial democracy? « Peter Levine Says:

    [...] neighborhoods, police sometimes shut down other forms of civic engagement beside voting. In one of our focus groups in Baltimore, for example, a young man said, “Democracy is … where everybody has an opinion. Like [...]

  21. Review: Struggling Young Adults Are A Question Mark For Campaigns | Culture and Youth Studies Says:

    [...]  Neither party, as far as these citizens are concerned, has focused much attention on them.  While they may seem indifferent, many of these young working-class Americans are “highly persuadable.”  In fact, when they are specifically asked to participate in civic involvement, participation increases. [...]

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