Whether implicit or explicit, the extant literature tends to conceptualize college-educated individuals as those who have graduated with a college degree. I argue that this is an assumption that undervalues the political significance of undergraduate college experiences. Thus, in my dissertation I ask: what is the effect of undergraduate college experiences on civic engagement?
More often than not, respondents are asked to specify the highest degree that they have obtained and grouped into broad categories as a result. I show that using “years of schooling” as the measure of educational attainment in statistical analyses yields more accurate information about the effect of education than measures that are based on degree receipt. Furthermore, information about why higher education undermines political apathy and bolsters adherence to communal norms is a black box. Through classroom observations and interviews with college students and college dropouts, I systematically analyze what it is about the collegiate learning process that increases the likelihood of civic engagement. My empirical results support the contention that exposure to a post-secondary educational environment increases the likelihood of engaging in several civic and political activities. However, they also reveal that socioeconomic mitigating factors undermine the positive effect of the college environment in various ways. I conclude that conceptualizing education as the “highest degree obtained” is not an adequate measure of an individual’s educational experience and the impact that it can have over time. By shifting out focus from degree receipt to educational experience, we can capture the effect that the college environment has on civic engagement with greater precision.