Students who engage in civic life are healthier, aim higher — but gaps exist

Higher rates of teenage civic engagement are tied to being healthier, missing fewer days of school, receiving better grades and having higher aspirations of attending college, according to a new study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

Researchers also found vast differences in rates of civic engagement across student groups, with activities consisting of volunteering, voting, and participating in school, community or political organizations. Low-income high school students were less likely to participate in two or more of these activities, while Latinos were the only racial or ethnic group varying significantly from white students in participation (less than two-quarters of Latinos participated in two or more activities, compared to over one-third of whites).

“Latino teens had the lowest rates of participation in clubs and volunteering,” said Susan Babey, research scientist at the UCLA center and lead author of the report. “Our research showed teens who don’t participate in these types of community activities say they aren’t as healthy and are less likely to see college in their future.”

Because of the benefits of civic engagement and the issues of equal access, the report’s authors recommend that schools and community groups increase opportunities for civic engagement by expanding and supporting programs that help youths improve their communities; encourage participation in civic engagement at middle and high school levels, particularly in low-income areas and communities of color; and seek out, engage and welcome youth who are not traditionally included in civic activities.

Key findings and benefits of civic engagement

Using responses of 2,253 teens from the statewide 2013-2014 California Health Interview Survey, the connection between student well-being and school engagement is made clear: missing school due to health is linked to low civic efficacy and the number of clubs or activities they were involved in. The highest rate of missing school due to health reasons was among students participating in one club or activity (28 percent), significantly higher than the rate among those participating in no clubs or two or more clubs (15 percent and 19 percent, respectively).

Additionally, 73 percent of students with high civic efficacy said they were highly likely to attend college, compared with 48 percent of those with low civic efficacy. Nearly 65 percent of teens who had volunteered in the past year also indicated a high likelihood of going to college, compared with less than half (48 percent) of those who did not.

Overall participation could also see improvements, the data show, as 22 percent of high school students are not involved in any club, organization or other activities in or out of school; 59 percent are not involved in an organization trying to make a difference and 36 percent have not volunteered.

Conclusions and recommendations for board members

Despite some of the socioeconomic and racial gaps highlighted in the report, high civic efficacy did not differ across these groups. Therefore, rates of civic engagement among low-income or Latino teens may not be an interest problem but an opportunity problem. “In many cases, it’s not that teens lack interest in community and political issues,” said Joelle Wolstein, center research scientist and co-author of the study. “What they may lack is the means and opportunity to participate.”

The report’s recommendations offer strategies for school board members and district administrators to consider in addressing disparities, including:

  • Removing common barriers that some students may face in accessing programs, such as lowering costs, subsidizing fees for low-income participants and introducing programs in underserved areas
  • Working with community organizations to raise awareness about volunteer opportunities, particularly those that may lead to part-time or temporary student employment — a major incentive for students from low-income households
  • Providing opportunities for low-income and Latino students to participate in civic engagement activities
  • Engaging students who have not traditionally been included in such activities by recognizing and valuing diversity (ethnic, racial and socioeconomic) to help youths in these groups feel more welcome

CSBA resources

Fact Sheet: Latino Students in California’s K-12 Public Schools

Governance Brief: Seize the Data, Using Chronic Absence Data to Boost Achievement

Resources on Student Physical Health and Wellness

Blog post: Voter awareness comes to high schools ahead of fall elections

Governance Brief: Why Civic Learning is Critical