Serving in student government is often seen as an important launching pad into higher elected offices. Educational institutions provide a way for students to become engaged in elected office at a crucial age. Understanding politics, being engaged at a young age, and being in a leadership position is a good way to spark civic interest and encourage young people to run. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton all served as presidents of their student governments while in college.
At many universities, there are similarities between the structure of the student government and our American democracy. While some student governments wield more power than others, they all serve important functions on campuses.
Student government serves as an effective way to spark interest in running for public office in young people. It is much more than just silly elections and campaign posters. For many college students, being involved teaches them how to compromise, utilize teamwork, understand a budget, advocate for policies that are important to them, and more. Student government gives students a stake in their own futures. Some groups even go to their state capitals and lobby for higher education improvements, student loan and debt policies, and other issues that affect college students. These real world experiences can help students feel encouraged to run for and serve in elected office once they graduate.
Unfortunately, young people are not running for public office. In Jennifer Lawless’ new book Running from Office, she discusses the reasons young people are not interested in running. She surveyed more than 4,000 high school and college students and inquired whether or not they would be interested in running for office at some point in their lives. Only 11 percent of young people surveyed expressed interest in being an elected official. Lawless concluded that the reason young people are not interested isn’t because they are tuned out from politics, rather they are turned off by what they see in Washington. Lawless’ solution is to incentivize political aptitude, possibly by making political knowledge and awareness of current events a component of college applications.
Women especially are not running for office. American culture tells women that men are better leaders, and that women should sit in the background. The strongest argument for why women should participate in student government is that it serves as a confidence booster. In another study, Lawless finds that not only are women much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office, but also women potential candidates are less confident than their male counterparts. Student government can build a woman’s confidence, which can encourage them to run for public office post graduation. Once in a leadership position, these young women may be more confident in their ability to run for an even higher office and realize they are just as qualified as any man. Despite criticisms that student governments don’t yield enough power or and aren’t able to implement change, the benefits of student government remain the same.
There are 500,000 elective offices in America that need to be filled. It is important for women and young people to run and fill these offices because their perspectives and ideas are valuable. When young people, and especially women, participate in student governments they gain skills, knowledge, and especially the confidence to run for public office after they graduate.