THE MISSING LINK: Exploring the
Relationship Between Higher Education
and Political Engagement
D. Sunshine Hillygus
Empirical political behavior research has consistently observed a robust and positive
relationship between education and political engagement, but has failed to adequately
explain why education is so important. Using data from the Baccalaureate and Beyond
(B&B) Longitudinal Study, I test three competing hypotheses explaining the enduring
link between higher education and political behavior. I ﬁnd that a verbal SAT scores
and a social science curriculum are related to future political engagement, suggesting
that the content of higher education, especially a curriculum that develops language
and civic skills, is inﬂuential in shaping participation in American democracy.
Key words: political engagement; participation; turnout; civic education; college
education; education effect.
The notion that formal educational attainment is the primary mechanism
behind many citizenship characteristics is largely uncontested.
consistently been found to increase political participation, electoral turnout,
civic engagement, political knowledge, and democratic attitudes and opinions.
Missing from the literature, however, is a theoretical and empirical investi-
gation of why education is such a powerful explanatory variable. Little is
known about how the educational process has such a profound effect on so
many aspects of democratic behavior.
What are the connective mechanisms
linking higher education with the various characteristics of democratic citi-
zenship? Is it the quality of the academic institution, the speciﬁc curriculum
Department of Government, Harvard University, Littauer Center, Cambridge, MA 02138
Political Behavior, Vol. 27, No. 1, March 2005 (
0190-9320/05/0300-0025/0 Ó 2005 Springer Science+Business Media Inc.