All the cool kids are doing it.  Photographer: Michael Fein/Bloomberg
All the cool kids are doing it.  Photographer: Michael Fein/Bloomberg

As U.S. college students arrive on campus at summer’s end, the soaring cost of higher education has put the institutions they attend under growing scrutiny. As President Barack Obama pointed out in a recent speech, the average tuition at a public four-year college has gone up by more than 250 percent over the last three decades, while the typical American family’s income has risen by just 16 percent.

So Obama has proposed a new rating system designed, as he put it, to see “who's offering the best value, so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.” The metrics he has in mind include: "How much debt does the average student leave with? How easy is it to pay off? How many students graduate on time? How well do those graduates do in the workforce?"

Sounds good, but if you want taxpayers to get a bigger bang for their educational buck, shouldn’t we also find out how well these students do as citizens? As of the midterm elections this November, let's begin ranking our colleges by how many of their students vote. No matter your political sympathies, getting more Americans to the polls is essential to breaking our current gridlock, starting with those who have the greatest stake in the country’s future.

To be sure, in midterm elections, every age and demographic group votes at a considerably lower rate. The huge drop-off among college kids ought to be especially galling, however. They're our most educated: They're racking up formal degrees as the young have never done before. Why not vote? I don't assume they all sleep to noon and read Plato, but this is, after all, higher education. And to the extent they're drowning in debt, they have a better reason than anyone back in Athens had to be voting.

How bad is the drop-off? According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, turnout of all college students who are 18 to 24 is as follows:

Sure the figures are far worse for those not attending college: But after all, they aren't in college, while college students are a captive audience, concentrated on campuses and easier to reach. Why aren't they being taught that electing a new Congress in a midterm election is just as important as electing a president? Maybe they don't know that Congress makes the laws.

I bet more colleges would start explaining that point, if somebody started publishing how many of their students vote. And then rank them, as does U.S. News and World Report. Or have the administration do it.

Maybe it will occur to a few university presidents, with their bloated salaries, often at the courtesy of taxpayers, that the original purpose of public education, at least according to Thomas Jefferson, was to teach people how to rule themselves -- without the direction of kings and nobles. Maybe we only care how students do in the work force. But most of these graduates will do better in the work force only to the extent that as citizens they can stop the very wealthy from taking an ever bigger income share.

With a turnout under 40 percent or even 25 percent in every midterm election, Americans lock in gridlock, because that's when extremists get in, and they redraw voting districts to rig the outcomes. Some of my friends admire young people for not voting: "They just know the system is rigged." Yes, there is gerrymandering, and it is rigged, but in 2010, the kids who didn't vote were among those who helped to rig it.

I'd like to think it was some hip existentialist stance, but in many cases, at least according to surveys, the kids were just clueless. They forgot. Or they were too busy with other things. Or whatever. The bigger reason is, that no one pounded home the point that electing a Congress really matters. The real government is not the president, who is supposed to be constitutionally a side show, but the two houses of Congress. Surely that’s a lesson that any university worth its other-worldly tuition would see fit to emphasize.

Once explained, it's fine if hipsters still don't want to vote. Let them enjoy a moment of hipness. Years ago, long after I graduated, my college professor told me that disillusioned by the Depression, he skipped his first chance to vote. "So when FDR ran in 1932, I didn't vote for him." Then he paused, and grinned. "But I've been voting for FDR in every election ever since."

Should we cut back aid to Harvard if students at Slippery Rock turn out in higher numbers to vote? It's tempting to say yes -- but alas, we should say no. There's no need for sanctions. So long as someone is keeping score in public, we can trust college administrators to start figuring out ways not to come in at the bottom.

To contact the author of this article: Thomas Geoghegan at geogh711@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.