Liberal Education

Leveraging a National Opportunity to Create a New Model for Civic Engagement

The presidential and vice-presidential debates organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates have been among the most-viewed television programs in history.1 But much has changed since the debates were first televised in 1960. Information channels that were once the domain of traditional media (i.e., television and print journalism) are being redefined by new media, using tools such as streaming news feeds, push notifications, and multimedia stories. Today, people don’t find the news; the news finds them. This global shift in how the media create and share news has profoundly shaped political behavior and civic engagement among all age groups, but perhaps none more deeply than the millennial generation. Like young people of the past, millennials participate in protests and rallies—but they also express their views through tweets, blog posts, YouTube videos, and Instagram photos. Millennials are not any less politically or civically engaged than previous generations.2 Their engagement just looks different.

Recognizing the relevance of new modes of engagement, the Commission on Presidential Debates sought to enlist a higher education partner to create an initiative for the 2016 election cycle that would speak to college students, especially traditional-age students who are millennials. Dominican University of California was a fitting collaborator in this work. A small private university located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dominican is explicitly committed to equipping students for informed, ethical global citizenship. Community engagement is one of the university’s founding pillars and one of four cornerstones of the Dominican Experience, the institution’s unique framework for student learning and success. Each year, Dominican organizes curricular and cocurricular events around an annual community engagement theme; in the 2016–17 academic year, for example, the theme was “Democracy and Equity.” Additionally, Dominican has a student body that, while primarily of traditional age, also reflects the diversity of California; about half of all undergraduate students are from minority racial and ethnic groups. Dominican is also among the growing number of small universities that are responding to a changing economy by offering academic programs that balance liberal arts education with professional training. And like much of higher education, Dominican is an institution of modest resources, where the desire to innovate means pressure to do more with less. These factors empowered Dominican to seek a partnership with the commission that would inspire our students—and students across the country—to become involved in the 2016 presidential election.

As one of five voter education partners named by the commission in October 2015,3 Dominican was charged with creating an innovative social media program to engage college students in the presidential and vice-presidential debates. The result was College Debate 2016 (CD16), a nonpartisan social media initiative designed to encourage college students to participate in the election process by exploring the issues they care about.

Creating College Debate 2016

Dominican developed CD16 with a few underlying assumptions. First, organizers assumed that young people care about a range of issues, including jobs, economic growth, climate change, health care, and student debt. Rejecting the stereotype that millennials are apathetic, CD16 organizers assumed that millennials are civically engaged on the issues that matter most to them. These assumptions were based on data about millennial engagement. One study of millennial employees suggests that they volunteer in their communities more than older nonmillennials.4 Millennials also donate time and money to large and small organizations around the world.5

With a focus on the issues rather than on the candidates or political parties, CD16 organizers launched a campaign to recruit student participants, ultimately involving 147 delegates from the fifty states and Washington, DC. The delegates came from big public universities, small private colleges, and community colleges; they were predominately women (63 percent), and nearly half (45 percent) identified as members of underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. The cohort comprised students majoring in a range of disciplines, including dance, chemistry, engineering, and literature.

Several organizational partners whose civic missions aligned closely with the goals of CD16 assisted Dominican in recruiting delegates and communicating about the initiative. These partners included the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the American Democracy Project, the Bonner Foundation, Bringing Theory to Practice, Campus Compact, The Democracy Commitment, Imagining America, the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University, Ignite, NASPA, Project Pericles, and the Washington Center. CD16 organizers worked closely with these groups to ensure that the initiative would complement rather than detract from their efforts. The partnering organizations were instrumental in recruiting student applicants, expanding the delegates’ networks, providing guidance as the program developed, and measuring the program’s impact. The CD16 leadership team also partnered with the Social Media Analytics and Command Center at Illinois State University to analyze students’ social media activity throughout the initiative.

Promoting issues-based civil discourse

CD16 focused on the need to promote civil discourse at a time when civility in politics is waning. This meant focusing on political, economic, social, and global issues rather than on political parties. To ensure that delegates represented a diverse array of opinions and positions, applicants completed the Pew Political Typology Quiz and submitted the results as part of their applications.6 The quiz requires respondents to state their positions related to a range of social, political, and economic issues; it then associates an individual’s views with one of seven typologies representing a continuum of conservative to liberal standpoints that transcend the simplified labels of Republican, Democrat, and Independent. Collectively, the delegates’ responses revealed how their viewpoints differed markedly from those of the general public. For example, CD16 delegates agreed more than the public that

  • “stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost” (by 32 percentage points);
  •  “society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children” (by 34 percentage points);
  •  “it is NOT necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values” (by 33 percentage points);
  • “racial discrimination is the main reason why many Black people can’t get ahead these days” (by 50 percentage points);
  •  “immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents” (by 35 percentage points).

After identifying a group of delegates with a range of views about these and other issues, CD16 organizers focused on preparing these delegates to engage in respectful discourse. An initial two-day convening on Dominican’s campus in June 2016 reinforced, despite CD16’s focus on the power of social media and virtual communication, that face-to-face interactions are invaluable. Together, delegates acquired tools for engaging in civil discourse, both online and in person.

In one exercise, filmmaker Julie Winokur screened her documentary Bring It to the Table,7 which chronicles her journey across the United States to meet with people holding a variety of political positions. As she traveled, Winokur invited people to sit at a table she carried with her, talk about their positions on a range of topics, and reflect on the roots of their political beliefs. After the screening, delegates participated in “Table Talks” modeled on those depicted in the film. This structured listening exercise helped delegates explore how their personal biases and assumptions could prevent them from hearing one another.

The delegates also learned about digital citizenship in a discussion guided by Sybril Brown, professor of journalism at Belmont University.8 Brown emphasized that although social media is a tool for civic engagement, it can pose challenges to civility by displacing face-to-face interactions with online posts. Brown encouraged the delegates to leverage social media to begin the kinds of conversations that are needed to effect change, but she also asked them to consider their roles in creating virtual forums that promote engagement rather than exclusion.

Finally, the delegates participated in two open forums: one with Alexander Heffner, host of PBS’s The Open Mind,9 and another with Alex Padilla, California’s Secretary of State. These events prompted delegates to consider the importance of informed citizenship, the need for facts to substantiate arguments and guide voting behavior, and the role that their generation can play in reintroducing civility to political discourse and facilitating respectful debate. The discussions allowed delegates to practice their listening skills and articulate ideas they had not necessarily had a chance to express in other venues.

Following the initial convening, the delegates spent the summer engaging their peers, classmates, and friends on the issues that mattered to them through social media. Their efforts were guided by a toolkit developed by the Dominican CD16 team.10 The toolkit instructed delegates to use #collegedebate16 as an identifying tag when sharing their insights and ideas through various social media platforms. The delegates’ tweets, chats, and Instagram posts exemplified their ability to discuss rather than yell, listen rather than ignore, and emphasize rather than condemn.

Taking student voice to a national stage

For two days in September 2016, the delegates reconvened on the Dominican campus to identify the group’s top five core issues and craft one question per issue that they would like to ask the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The delegates submitted these questions by formal memo to the Commission on Presidential Debates; the commission then forwarded the memo to the moderators of the debates, who ultimately decided whether to ask any of the recommended questions.

While Dominican organizers provided support, space, and discussion facilitation, the process of narrowing the topic areas and developing questions was in the hands of the delegates. Students’ prior training was crucial in helping them arrive at consensus. Using a caucus-style format, delegates first chose five topic areas that were relevant to them. They then shared meaningful personal stories that helped depoliticize and humanize volatile topics like immigration and health care. Some delegates spoke of being immigrants or members of immigrant families, complicating the narrative about “building a wall”; similarly, one delegate shared insights into the role that subsidies play for his family’s farm, prompting other delegates to consider the economic impacts of government policy on agriculture.

After two hours of discussion, the delegates determined that their core issues were (1) income inequality and the economy, (2) foreign policy, (3) social justice and civil rights, (4) immigration, and (5) education. The next day, they developed questions for each topic area and—again, through a process of respectful dialogue and argumentation—arrived at three questions for each topic. During a town hall event that evening, delegates voted to select these questions for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates:11

  • How would you restructure governmental assistance programs for the unemployed or impoverished to obtain self-sufficiency? (Topic: Income inequality and the economy)
  • What specific circumstances would prompt the United States to use military resources in a foreign country? How would you utilize the country’s military resources? (Topic: Foreign policy)12
  • How do you plan on supporting Syrian civilians without creating further conflict with other political actors? (Topic: Foreign policy)
  • What will you do to reduce the recidivism and mass incarceration rates in communities where poverty and violence are prevalent? (Topic: Social justice and civil rights)
  • What is your plan for aiding the employment of skilled refugees and immigrants in their respective fields? (Topic: Immigration)
  • How will you ensure quality education to areas of socioeconomic disadvantage both in terms of K–12 and access to higher education? (Topic: Education)

While the debate moderators ultimately chose not to ask any of the questions crafted by CD16 delegates, the substance of the questions and the process through which they were created speaks to the enormous civic capacity of the students involved. According to Illinois State University’s Social Media Analytics Command Center (SMACC), #collegedebate16 reached 1.8 million social media users by the date of the election. SMACC analyzed public posts and concluded that social media mentions of #collegedebate16 averaged one per hour between May 29 and November 15, 2016. Features and articles in media outlets such as Telemundo, NBC News Bay Area, USA Today College, Inside Higher Ed, and others expanded the initiative’s reach. Ultimately, in addition to the 1.8 million social media users directly reached by #collegedebate16, 4.35 million people encountered the story via media outlets’ social media, and 65 million people came across it via television, radio, online media, and print publications. At the time of this writing, the College Debate 2016 Facebook page continues to receive new views every week.

Lessons for higher education

CD16 organizers aimed to create a civic engagement initiative that met millennial students where they are in terms of communication, news acquisition, and relationship building. In 2017, this means engaging in both physical and virtual spaces. As CD16 delegate Drew Reid (Dominican University of California) noted, “We won’t read the news (from newspapers) but we will read a Twitter feed. We’ll know what’s going on through our social media.” CD16 aimed to heighten students’ civic and political participation by leveraging their existing engagement in social media networks. But the initiative also recognized the value in bringing students together face-to-face to work toward common goals.

As facilitators, we observed firsthand the value of both in-person and virtual engagement. We saw a student who described himself as a “staunch Republican” and believed in the need for a strong military discussing the environment with another who identified as an Emma Goldman–inspired anarchist awaiting the “real revolution.” We observed the same kind of spirited engagement online as students encouraged their peers to take positions and explain their points of view. CD16 provided a framework for acknowledging how students make connections across multiple media. Just as important, the initiative showcased how those same media can be tools for enacting civility as well as expressing opinion.

The 2016 election was one of the most divisive and contentious elections in recent memory. In the analyses that followed, many commentators pointed toward social media as contributing to the negative nature of the election. A recent study, however, showed that the increase in political polarization is largest among those demographic groups least likely to use the internet or social media (i.e., older Americans).13 By using social media constructively, the CD16 delegates underscored the role generational differences may play in how people communicate civic ideas and create civil dialogue online.

Commenting on the idea that voters cast their ballots for candidates or parties, CD16 delegate Dara Prentiss (Spelman College) stated, “You need to go vote for yourself first. This is what you believe in.” By focusing on the issues rather than on political parties or candidates, CD16 delegates explored their beliefs and practiced communicating those beliefs respectfully to their peers. The initiative allowed students to engage with difference—an important high-impact educational practice14—in ways many had never done before, by entering into conversations with peers of varying political standpoints through a variety of media. As facilitators, we saw humor and humanity in their interactions, both virtual and in-person. The initiative gave us great hope for higher education’s work to build the civic skills and capacities of a new generation of college students. And it reminded us to recognize and appreciate how this generation of millennial students will craft their civic identities and engage in civil discourse in new and innovative ways.


1. Craig L. LaMay and Newton M. Minow, Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

2. Voter turnout is one way of comparing civic engagement across generations. See “Millennials are on Par with Boomers in Voter Turnout,” Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, published October 29, 2012, accessed May 9, 2017,

3. The other partners (Hofstra University; Longwood University; Washington University in St. Louis; and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas) hosted the presidential and vice-presidential debates on their campuses in fall 2016.

4. See Brigid Schulte, “Millennials Are Actually More Generous than Anybody Realizes,” Washington Post, June 24, 2015,

5. Derrick Feldmann, Jonathon Hosea, Joey Ponce, Melissa Wall, and Lara Banker, Cause, Influence and the Next Generation Workforce: The 2015 Millennial Impact Report (West Palm Beach, FL and Indianapolis, IN: Achieve, 2015),

6. To take the Pew Political Typology Quiz, visit

7. See

8. See See also Sybril Bennett, “Civility, Social Media and Higher Education: A Virtual Triangle,” in Civic Learning and Teaching, ed. Ashley Finley (Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice, 2014), 53.

9. See

10. Please contact Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar ( if you are interested in the toolkit.

11. The town hall can be viewed in its entirety at

12. A tie vote in the foreign policy category resulted in the selection of two questions.

13. Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse M. Shapiro, “Is the Internet Causing Political Polarization? Evidence from Demographics,” National Bureau of Economics Working Paper 23258 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economics, 2017).

14. George Kuh and Ken O’Donnell, Ensuring Quality and Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013).

HANNA RODRIGUEZ-FARRAR is vice president for public affairs and university relations at Dominican University of California. ASHLEY FINLEY is associate vice president of academic affairs and dean of the Dominican Experience at Dominican University of California.

To respond to this article, email, with the authors’ names on the subject line.

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