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School & District Management

Report Shows Civic Disparities by Education, Income Levels

By Erik W. Robelen — May 24, 2012 2 min read
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With the presidential campaign in full swing, a new study spotlights some troubling disparities in who is—and who is not—likely to cast a ballot this November. In short, it works something like this: If you’re young, poor, and a high school dropout, you probably won’t vote.

The new report published by the Educational Testing Service found that educational attainment alone was a significant factor in the likelihood of voting, and it was amplified when combined with income and age. Although the findings may not be terribly surprising to readers, the extent of the disparity is striking, and the report suggests that it’s getting worse over time.

Here’s probably the most chilling, and stark, statistic: Young high school dropouts living in poverty are 23 times less likely to vote than older adults (55 to 64) with at least a master’s degree earning a $100K-plus family income. In 2010, fewer than four in 100 of those young dropouts voted.

The study describes this degree of stratification as “historically unprecedented.”

“The nation’s less-educated, lower-income, and young adults have voluntarily disenfranchised themselves from the voting process,” says the report, authored by Richard Coley of ETS and Andrew Sum of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. “This represents a serious civic empowerment gap for our nation, [and] ... should be viewed as a fault line in the bedrock of our nation’s democracy that must be addressed.”

As the ETS analysis shows, even educational attainment alone appears to be a strong indicator of voting behavior. Essentially, the more schooling you get, the more likely you are to vote. The voting rates below, from 2010, are for all adults, regardless of age or income level:

  • Master’s degree or higher (69 percent)
  • Bachelor’s degree (60 percent)
  • Some college (50 percent)
  • High school graduate or GED (39 percent)
  • High school dropout (25.5 percent)

The report is quick to note that civic participation is not simply about voting. The authors developed a Civic Engagement Index that incorporates not simply voting habits, but also volunteering with a nonprofit or government agency, volunteering with a civic or political organization, and volunteering with an education- or health-related agency.

By this broader measure, the report finds that the more education individuals attain, the greater level of civic engagement they demonstrate.

Here is the index rating (on a scale of 0 to 5) based on educational attainment of adults.

  • Master’s degree or higher (2.24)
  • Bachelor’s degree (1.98)
  • Some college (1.62)
  • High school diploma (1.24)
  • High school dropout (0.80)

There was also a steady upward climb in civic engagement, as measured by the index, as a family’s household income rose.

I’ll offer just one more data point to reveal the extremes now seen in U.S. society. The Civic Engagement Index score was nearly seven times higher for adults aged 45-64 with a master’s degree or higher and $100K-plus family income than for high school dropouts younger than 25 with income below $20K.

The ETS report outlines a variety of suggested actions to help remedy the situation, from boosting graduation rates to improving civics education. It also suggests establishing a National Commission on Civic Engagement.

“If the nation truly wants to achieve a more broadly based democracy,” the report says, “a more egalitarian political system, a more politically active citizenry, and a more assimilated society, then we need to take action.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.