Colleges cannot wield political influence
For many high school students, the months after applying to college become an incredibly fragile time.
Uncertainty about the future makes this group particularly vulnerable to external social and political influences, especially when these influences come from colleges themselves. Taking advantage of this vulnerability will ultimately damage higher education by cultivating a student body that cannot think for itself.
But in its desperation to prevent further budget cuts to public schools, the Cal State system is doing just this by telling their applicants to vote yes on Proposition 30.
In place of the traditional note thanking students for their interest, 2012 Cal State applicants will, according to the Los Angeles Times, receive an explicit warning that reads, “Because enrollment capacity is tied to the amount of available state funding, the campuses will be able to admit more applicants if Proposition 30 passes and fewer applicants if the proposition fails,” according to a draft of a letter to be emailed to Cal State Monterey Bay applicants in October.
It seems like a brilliant move strategically: Remind students, who too often blow off state legislation as irrelevant, just how high a struggling economy makes the stakes for public education. A state budget crisis and extreme cuts are threatening college education — their college education — and students have the power to do something about it.
But Cal State’s packaging of this reminder into a receipt-of-application letter sends a message that each student’s admission or rejection is contingent on how he or she votes come November.
As Cal State isn’t about to carry out high caliber espionage, there is no way for them to actually know how prospective students are voting.
But the threat can be enough. Some student voters will undoubtedly associate voting on Prop. 30 with their admission to college, possibly influencing them to vote in a way they would not otherwise. In an opposite effect, it might also drive young voters to shirk their civic responsibility and abstain from voting altogether — ironic, considering the efforts made by many universities to get students interested in voting.
As with programs encouraging student political engagement, colleges and universities do have a role to play in influencing communities of young people. USC, for example, consistently tries to influence the student body to support their policy decisions and exhibit Trojan pride.
But, as college students, we must be wary of the messages universities are trying to send and how they choose to send them. We cannot, for example, accept the athletic department’s “Victory Emails” as absolute proof that we have the best sports team in the nation, or assume that when USC announces the advantages of a new community construction plan, they are telling us the whole story.
In Cal State’s case, the admissions department is, intentionally or otherwise, using applicant anxiety to influence voting decisions. Ultimately, though, high emotion will only inhibit the ability of students to understand the action they are taking.
College is supposed to be a time where we hone our skills as individual critical thinkers. Part of this means that we must acknowledge that college and university systems exercise considerable influence over many different facets of our lives. Young voters must learn to be wary of attempts like that of the Cal State system to infringe upon the decision-making autonomy of its applicants. Otherwise, we might leave college more uneducated than when we started.
Francesca Bessey is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies and international relations. Her column “Open Campus” runs Wednesdays.