In 1906, psychologist William James proposed national service as a way to boost political engagement among young Americans. More than a century later, a team of political scientists has shown one long-running program that attracts recent college graduates hoping to improve U.S. education also boosts their voting rates, a key metric of political engagement.
The effort, called Teach for America (TFA), places them at high-needs urban and rural public schools across the country while training them to become teachers. Its goal is better student outcomes. But the new study found those who spent 2 years in TFA were significantly more likely to vote than those who applied but weren’t chosen for the program.
Researchers had theorized that national service programs could improve dismally low voting participation rates among young adults. But the analysis of the TFA program, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), confirms and quantifies that positive relationship for the first time.
“It’s a significant finding,” says David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame who was not involved in the research. “And its rigor also sets a high standard for future studies.”
The finding strikes a personal chord for the paper’s lead author, Cecilia Mo, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. Mo spent 2 years in the early 2000s as a TFA corps member, teaching math in a Los Angeles high school, and says the experience fueled her decision to study ways to foster democratic ideals and reduce inequality. “We would all sit around and talk about how the experience has shaped our view of politics, increased our empathy for others, and influenced our career paths,” she says about her TFA colleagues.
Launched in 1990, the nonprofit TFA has 66,000 alumni who have worked in more than 9000 elementary and secondary schools as paid employees of the school district. After Mo become a quantitative social scientist, she decided to tap into TFA’s extensive database of applicants to test whether what she and her friends had experienced might be universal.
The nearly 30,000 subjects in the sample—most of them recent college graduates—were drawn from those who fell on either side of a narrow band of TFA applicants recommended or not recommended for the program between 2007 and 2015. Mo and her co-authors used a clever statistical tool known as regression discontinuity design to create a group of TFA teachers and a control group of rejected applicants with minimally different demographic characteristics.
The scientists then searched through a national voter registry to see how many from each group voted in the 2012 presidential and 2014 midterm elections. They found that those who completed their 2-year TFA commitment voted at a rate 5.7 to 8.6 percentage points higher than their counterparts not in the program. (The range stems from the various ways the scientists matched TFA fellows with identical names on voting registries.)
That increase, if generalized to the entire population, would close by as much as 30% the current 30–percentage point gap between the voting rates of Americans under age 30 and those older than 60. The authors say serving in TFA was also 14 times more effective in promoting voting than simply urging eligible young people to do their civic duty through a get-out-the-vote campaign or other direct appeals.
The researchers admit they can’t pinpoint the reason why being part of TFA makes one more likely to vote. But they offer several hypotheses, including that the program gives participants a prolonged exposure to social inequalities and helps them develop the “skills and beliefs … to engage in politics.”
If those turn out to be causal factors, Mo says, it’s reasonable to expect that other U.S. national service programs, such as the Peace Corps or the domestic AmeriCorps VISTA program, increase civic engagement. Such a finding, she says, would be a boon to advocates of national service. “It suggests that even programs that are not explicitly designed to do so have downstream effects that can create more civic-minded citizens,” she says.
But Sunshine Hillygus, a political scientist at Duke University, thinks it’s likely too soon to draw that conclusion. “The mechanism [for changing voting behavior] is an important question for future studies,” says Hillygus, who has collaborated with one of the paper’s co-authors, John Holbein of the University of Virginia, on studies of youth voting but not on this research.
It’s possible, Hillygus says, the TFA applicants already “were primed for civic participation,” and that the program simply gave them a nudge. Campbell likens the TFA effect to “pushing them through an open door.”
The PNAS study also doesn’t address whether compulsory national service, such as being drafted into the military, would also lead to more civic engagement. (William James, a pacifist, considered wars inevitable and called national service “the moral equivalent of war.”) Hillygus and Campbell think it could even have the opposite effect, because participation is involuntary.
Even with those caveats, however, Hillygus calls the TFA study “an important first step” in charting a course for greater civic engagement and higher voter turnout among the young.
“There have been so many efforts to improve voter turnout that don’t work,” she says. “So even if this is in only one group, and under certain conditions, it’s a very important result.”
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