The Long-Term Impact of Learning to Deliberate

A 2008 report commissioned by the Spencer Foundation noted the importance of assessing what we know and don’t know about creating “long lasting habits of civic engagement” (Hollander and Burack 2009, 1). The report’s authors argued for (1) the need to identify “academic and co-curricular elements that most impact student civic engagement and long term commitment to civic engagement,” and (2) the need for longitudinal approaches and data (6–8). In 2012, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement pointed to a survey of college students that found that only a third of respondents felt “that their civic awareness had expanded in college, that the campus had helped them learn the skills needed to effectively change society for the better, or that their commitment to improve society had grown” (41). In this essay, we respond to these two sets of concerns, reporting on a longitudinal study of the long-term impact of training in deliberation. Our results suggest that learning to deliberate in college can promote civic awareness and engagement and help students develop skills that continue throughout adulthood.

The Democracy Fellows Program, 2001–05

Between 2001 and 2005, the first two authors worked with a group of thirty students at Wake Forest University in what was called the Democracy Fellows program. Participants were recruited from the entering first-year class and were selected to reflect the gender, race and ethnicity, and regional distribution of the entering class, as well as a diverse set of views about and experiences with civic engagement. During their first semester, participating students enrolled in a first-year seminar titled Democracy and Deliberation, where they learned both the theory and the practice of deliberation. In the second semester, these students collectively chose a campus issue around which to frame an issue guide, which they used during the sophomore year to organize and moderate a campus-wide deliberation. In their junior year, they organized and moderated a deliberation in the Winston-Salem community. During their senior year, they put their moderating skills to use in other campus or community settings.

We assessed the effect of participation in the Democracy Fellows in several ways. In order to distinguish between the impact of Wake Forest’s liberal arts education and the impact of participation in the program, we compared the fellows to a class cohort. We conducted entry interviews with all fellows in the fall of their first year, focus groups in the second and third years, and exit interviews in the spring of the senior year. Each year, we also conducted focus groups with the class cohort. During each of these sessions, we administered surveys about students’ various activities on campus; during the senior year, we also included several questions in a larger survey given to all seniors by the Office of Institutional Research.

We reported the findings of this study in Speaking of Politics: Preparing College Students for Democratic Citizenship through Deliberative Dialogue (Harriger and McMillan 2007). Although students from the two groups were very much alike at the beginning of their college careers, by the end they displayed some meaningful differences. The Democracy Fellows were more engaged with political activities during college than members of the cohort and had more complex and communally focused notions of citizenship and its responsibilities. While both groups felt that they were likely to be civically engaged after college, their reasons for believing so differed. The fellows saw themselves working with others in their communities to solve shared problems, while members of the class cohort were more likely to say that they would vote and pay attention to politics in order to protect their own interests. The fellows were also more likely than members of the cohort to say that their college education had prepared them for their civic roles. Finally, the fellows talked about the ways in which they were using deliberative skills in their daily lives, including in the classroom, their student organizations, and their personal relationships. It was clear that, at least in the short term, their four-year exposure to the theory and practice of deliberation had had an impact on their civic engagement.

The Alumni Study, 2014–15

A decade later—after the fellows had graduated from college and entered the workforce, and with the United States experiencing an increasingly polarized political climate—we wondered whether the differences we saw in 2005 remained. Was there still a discernible difference in the fellows’ political engagement and attitudes about civic engagement, or had these differences been erased by their experiences in the “real world”?

To answer this question, we adopted a research design similar to that of the first study. With the help of the alumni office and of social media, we located twenty of the fellows. We also recruited a random sample of alumni from the class of 2005, matched to program participants by college major, gender, and race or ethnicity because such matching strengthens the ability to conclude that differences between groups were caused by the treatment in question rather than by other factors (Ho et al. 2007). We conducted telephone interviews with both groups, using the same set of questions (with the exception of a few program-focused questions that we asked only of the fellows). Following the interview, both groups completed an online survey.

Our analysis of both the quantitative and qualitative data revealed that there continue to be significant differences between the Democracy Fellows and the class cohort. Although both groups dislike the degree of political polarization they encounter in their daily lives, the fellows continue to be more engaged in the political process than does the class cohort. The fellows are still more likely to believe that their education prepared them for their civic roles, and they strongly indicate that the Democracy Fellows program was a key element of that education. They also continue to use the skills they learned in the program in all aspects of their lives and recount with considerable detail some of the key lessons that they learned, such as listening, seeking to understand people with whom they disagree, learning to disagree without hating others, appreciating that alternative viewpoints are valid and sincerely held, and asking who is not at the table.


Both the original study and our alumni follow-up study provide substantial evidence that teaching students to deliberate is a high-impact practice worth the commitment of time and resources. At Wake Forest, we recently held three annual campus-wide deliberations on campus culture, with a particular focus on issues of diversity and inclusion. We are working to institutionalize deliberative training in both the curriculum and campus life. We also have shared our efforts with interested neighboring institutions.

As colleges and universities seek to answer the 2012 call to action from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, they should consider ways to integrate deliberative practice both inside and outside of the classroom. Perhaps nothing speaks to the benefits of deliberation better than the words of a Democracy Fellow, responding to a question about her experience in the program. Noting how important it is that eighteen-year-olds learn to understand a “diversity of viewpoints,” she said, “I think that’s like the crux of deliberative democracy. It’s like allowing people to share their opinion and to be able to listen and then to walk away from that not making somebody an enemy because of a difference in viewpoint. And if everybody had that kind of training and education, imagine how much more productive […] society would be [….]”


Harriger, Katy J., and Jill J. McMillan. 2007. Speaking of Politics: Preparing College Students for Democratic Citizenship through Deliberative Dialogue. Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation Press.

Ho, Daniel E., Kosuke Imai, Gary King, and Elizabeth A. Stuart. 2007. “Matching as Nonparametric Preprocessing for Reducing Model Dependence in Parametric Causal Inference.” Political Analysis 15: 199–236.

Hollander, Elizabeth, and Cathy Burack. 2009. How Young People Develop Long-Lasting Habits of Civic Engagement: A Conversation on Building a Research Agenda. The Spencer Foundation.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Katy Harriger is chair and professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University; Jill J. McMillan is professor emerita in the Department of Communication at Wake Forest University; Christy M. Buchanan is a professor in the Department of Psychology and associate dean for academic advising at Wake Forest University; and Stephanie Gusler is a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at Wake Forest University.

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