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Youth Who Develop their Voice in High School Are More Likely to Vote

New CIRCLE research shows a positive relationship between political participation and opportunities to develop student voice in and out of the classroom.

Authors: Kelly Siegel-Stechler, Naraya Price, Alberto Medina
Contributors: Abby Kiesa, Noorya Hayat, Sara Suzuki

At a Glance: Major Findings

Most Youth Take Civics Courses

The majority of young people remembered taking a civics or government course in high school, but they did not always find their classroom civic learning impactful.

Student Voice Linked to Voting

81% of surveyed youth who remembered student voice experiences in high school said they were extremely likely to vote in 2024, compared to 44% of those who did not.

Inequities in Student Voice

Less than half of all young people recalled high school experiences in which their voice was valued; Black and Asian youth were less likely to remember having those experiences.

For more than two decades, CIRCLE has been researching and promoting equitable access to civic learning for young people, and how it shapes their future voting habits and lifelong civic engagement. We have previously documented the relationship between civic learning experiences in K-12 schools and positive perceptions of voting. Our most recent data confirms this positive association, but goes deeper to highlight the critical role of student voice in driving young people’s civic attitudes and action—including their likelihood to vote in 2024.

The Glossary of Education Reform defines student voice as “the values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds of individual students and groups of students in a school, and to instructional approaches and techniques that are based on student choices, interests, passions, and ambitions.” Crucially, there are also opportunities for student voice in K-12 schools outside of the classroom: in clubs, activities, and relationships with teachers or school leaders who can create a school climate that is responsive to young people’s views and perspectives.

Our ongoing research into civic learning and engagement has increasingly pointed to the importance of student voice for civic outcomes. Our 2023 evaluation of middle school civics instruction in Illinois, which examined the implementation of new civic education standards, found that student voice and a positive school climate were some of the strongest correlates with a number of civic competencies. New data from the CIRCLE Pre-2024 Election Youth Survey allows us to better understand that relationship.

Black and Asian Youth Are Getting Fewer Student Voice Opportunities

Less than two in five young people (ages 18-34) surveyed in our poll recalled having “experiences in class, in student groups, or with school leaders where they felt their voice and opinion mattered” while in high school. White (41%) and Latino youth (40%) were more likely to say they remembered such student voice experiences compared to Black and Asian youth (both 34%).

While youth may not directly think of it as a “student voice” experience, one other way students may feel that their voice and opinion matters is if they are explicitly encouraged to use that voice in the political process. Just over half of young people in our survey recalled being explicitly encouraged to vote by a teacher in school. Here, again, there are inequities by race: approximately 60% of white and Asian youth recalled receiving such encouragement from teachers, compared to 50% of Latino youth and 44% of Black youth. Young people were less likely to be encouraged to vote by administrators or by other adult leaders in clubs/extracurricular activities, but there were no major differences by race in encouragement from those sources.

Student Voice Has a Major Connection to Voting and Civic Action

Among students who strongly agreed that they had high school experiences in which they felt their voices and opinions mattered, 81% said they are extremely likely to vote in the 2024 election. That’s nearly 25 points higher than the 57% of all youth in our survey who considered themselves extremely likely to vote, and almost double the 44% of youth who strongly disagreed they had student voice experiences and said they were likely to vote.

Students who strongly recalled student voice experiences in high school also had a strong “civic engagement score,” measured by their responses on whether they’ve taken civic actions like volunteering, attending a protest, or running for office. Youth who did not have student voice experiences in school scored below average on civic actions taken, while youth who did recall such experiences had an above-average civic engagement score.

Notably, these positive relationships between having student voice experiences in high school, likelihood to vote, and civic action were observed across all subgroups of youth, and remained strong even after controlling for race/ethnicity, gender, college experience and age.

Student Voice May be a Key Missing Ingredient in Civic Education

The impact of student voice on civic outcomes—and the relative dearth and inequality of these opportunities—may help explain another key finding from our survey: the majority of youth are taking civic education courses, but much fewer consider these courses meaningful to their understanding of the democratic process.

The majority of young people in our survey said they took a course called something like civic, government, or American government in high school. However, there were inequities in who had access to this kind of educational experience. Just over 75% of white and Asian youth recalled taking such a course, compared to about two-thirds of Black and Latino youth.

At the same time, less than half of youth said their classroom experiences in high school “had an impact on [their] understanding of our democratic process and its importance.” While two thirds of Asian youth agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, but only 49% of white youth, 43% of Latino youth, and just 36% of Black youth agreed that their course experiences impacted their understanding. 

In and out of the classroom, student voice can make civics courses and other civic learning experiences more impactful. There are practices and cultural shifts to elevate student voice that everyone in the school ecosystem can embrace. For example, teachers can encourage student feedback and ideas by designating a place in the classroom for students to ask questions, share ideas, and offer feedback that can inform action steps or future activities. Teachers can also prompt students to create a list of things they want to learn, and think through ways to blend their interests with educational standards.

School leaders, including school administrators and curriculum designers and specialists, also have a role to play. They can solicit student feedback beyond their specific classroom that can aid in the design and implementation of educational standards. Youth can also develop their voice outside the classroom, so school leaders should create opportunities for students to design and drive their extracurriculars.

Explicit leadership opportunities are also valuable, whether it’s allowing students to inform district-level decision making by creating positions for them to serve on the school board, or utilizing participatory budgeting to allow students to inform school funding. CIRCLE is supporting this work in Illinois, where our partnership with Illinois Democracy Schools led to a grant from the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP) for youth-led participatory budget projects. Practices like participatory budgeting in schools can be especially effective to build youth voice and grow voters, since they allow young people to see the tangible impact of their decision-making and civic participation on a community they care about: their school and their fellow students.


Methodology: The CIRCLE Pre-2024 Election Youth Survey was developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University, and the polling firm Ipsos collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents between October 25 and November 2, 2023. The study surveyed a total of 2,017 self-reported U.S. citizens ages 18 to 34 in the United States; unless otherwise mentioned, data are for all 18- to 34-year-olds in our sample.