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Voter turnout among college students rose in 2016 election, Tufts study says

Researchers analyzed the federal voting patterns of nearly 10 million college students on more than 1,000 campuses.Fotolia

The divisive 2016 national election coincided with a surge in activism on college campuses around the country, as students protested against racial injustice and highlighted such problems as campus sexual assault and the high cost of college. But did that translate into higher student turnout at the polls?

To answer that question, Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life analyzed the federal voting patterns of nearly 10 million college students on more than 1,000 campuses. The results: Turnout among college students in 2016 increased by more than 3 percentage points, to 48.3 percent, over turnout in 2012.

Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts and a researcher for the study, said the results showed that the widespread fear that young people wouldn’t vote was misguided.


“There was some speculation that they simply wouldn’t turn out or they would not be very engaged in the election, and that’s just not what happened at all,” Thomas said.

The Tufts research offers a window into possible voting habits going into the 2020 election, when millennials are expected to make up 40 percent of eligible voters.

Here are four other takeaways from the analysis:

■  Women voted at rates nearly 7 percentage points higher than men in both 2012 and 2016.

■  Turnout increases were especially large among Hispanic and Asian students, but black student turnout decreased by 5 percentage points. Voting by Hispanic college students rose 7 percentage points, to 45.9 percent. The study did not say why, but they might have been motivated by now-President Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration.

■  Social science majors voted at significantly higher rates than STEM majors. Voting rates increased in all academic fields of study, but students majoring in STEM fields voted at the lowest rate. In 2016, students majoring in social sciences voted at 53.2 percent, compared with STEM majors, who voted at 43.6 percent.


■  At the state level, voting rates at colleges and universities in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania tended to increase the most, on average.

Thomas said one of the more important findings is the increase in turnout among female, Hispanic, and Asian students.

“I think the significance has more to do with the breakdown and which students turned out at higher rates,” Thomas said. “As this age group of students, and frankly young people, becomes more diverse, sub groups of young people have more and more power.”

Sophia Eppolito can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @SophiaEppolito.