Many experts and respected organizations with interests in civic engagement have warned that democracy is in danger. This is true both in the USA and across the globe. The causes of the threats to democracy are numerous and interlinked. Sometimes they can be challenging to identify. In a time of democratic uncertainty, higher education institutions have a contribution to make towards strengthening democracy. They can safeguard the future of systems that ensure everyone can have a say in their government. Some American colleges have been particularly successful in achieving this mission by improving civic engagement. The 30 American colleges in this ranking are all strong examples.
American colleges have an especially strong responsibility to promote democracy, both domestically and internationally. The USA was founded on the principle of creating a government that served to support the interests of its citizens. And strongly linked to this concept was the idea of creating universities. In fact, President George Washington spent one-fifth of his first State of the Union Address discussing the creation of a national university. Thus, every American college should be dedicated to strengthening democracy as well as the three branches of government that allows them to not just exist, but thrive.
Strengthening democracy is a prolonged and evolving process. This ranking has given precedence to the colleges that can demonstrate ongoing active participation in pro-democratic initiatives. The more active the school is in civic engagement, the higher it places in the ranking.
Any one of the 30 colleges ahead is a strong choice for high school students who want to study within an institution that proactively protects and expands democracy. Still, it’s also possible that none of the colleges here are right for you. If that’s the case, then this ranking of colleges strengthening democracy can still be a vital resource in your college search. Each entry has a detailed summary that explains the college’s pro-democracy efforts. These have been included for you to compare and contrast with your own college options. If any college that you’re considering is advocating for democracy like the 30 ahead, then that’s a strong sign that it’s the right college for you.
The initial research for this ranking comes from two types of sources. The first type is journalistic work highlighting the work of colleges that have tried to promote and protect democracy. The other type lists colleges that are members of pro-democracy organizations. These sources are as follows:
- The Atlantic, Universities Are Shunning Their Responsibility to Democracy
- EdSurge, American Democracy Is Sick. Can Colleges Be Part of the Cure?
- Inside Higher Ed Academe’s Neglected Responsibility
- American Democracy Project, ADP Participating Colleges and Universities
- College Civic Learning, Shared Commitment Signatories and Partners
- Democratic Erosion, Participating Universities
After identifying the colleges strengthening democracy and civic engagement, we then conducted further research. This additional research aimed to identify other ways in which each institution was conducting pro-democracy projects. This research formed the final basis for inclusion in this ranking.
The ranking criteria for the colleges ahead are as follows:
- Evidence of a wide range of pro-democracy efforts
- Evidence of historical pro-democracy efforts
- Evidence that the college will expand its pro-democracy efforts in the future
- Evidence of innovation in conducting pro-democracy efforts
- Total number of mentions in sources
The final ranking of colleges strengthening democracy, from 30 to one, is as follows:
30. Wesleyan University
In terms of strengthening democracy, one of Wesleyan University’s proudest achievements in recent years was encouraging 77% of eligible students to vote on election day in 2020. This was a 10% increase in civic engagement compared to the 2016 election day. This achievement resulted in the college being given a Gold Seal by the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. The college’s Jewett Center for Community Partnerships also partners with government organizations to engage communities and strengthen democracy. Wesleyan University’s president, Michael Roth, has also proactively spoken out against attempts to dismantle democracy.
29. Antioch University
Culver City, California
In 2015, Antioch University expanded its PhD in Leadership and Change program into an entire graduate school. This allowed the school to increase its efforts toward strengthening democracy. In 2021, the university gained funding to create dialogue around equity and democracy. Also, in 2021, the college’s chancellor, William Groves, and a the former professor of the college, William G Tierney, called for higher education institutions to do more to protect democracy. They provided examples to many who work in the field on how to do so. William Groves also promoted democratic activity, student engagement, and civic knowledge among colleges.
28. The University of Texas at Austin
The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at The University of Texas at Austin has an important goal. It hopes to end racial inequality by reshaping government policy. Thus, the school maintains a student fellows program and holds events such as speaker series to promote civic knowledge. Outside of this center, the college’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs hosts further events focusing on strengthening democracy within civil society, such as civil dialogues to find common ground on the future of voting.
27. Carnegie Mellon University
The Center for Informed Democracy & Social – Cybersecurity at Carnegie Mellon University works to eradicate online disinformation, hate speech, and extremism. Some ways it’s striving towards this goal include analyzing polarized Twitter behavior during protests and hunting coronavirus conspiracy theories. The college’s Institute for Politics and Strategy also provides undergraduate and postgraduate education to strengthen civic knowledge and democratic practices. This is aside from conducting research efforts. Since 2010, this institute has published the Carnegie Mellon University Journal of Politics and Strategy. Carnegie Mellon University is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
26. The George Washington University
The Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics at George Washington University is proactive in supporting various initiatives for strengthening democracy and civic knowledge. This includes those that promote the understanding of threats to democracy. For instance, it assisted New York University in developing a tool that would allow the easy analysis of political ads. More broadly, this institute conducts investigations into destructive content, runs the Mis/disinformation Lab, and researches how online narratives affect the democratic opinions of people of different demographics. In recent years, this institute has also extended its global reach. The George Washington University is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
25. Arizona State University
One of the core programs of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University is Delivering Democracy. This program has been running since 2014, and it has since become one of the most popular events across the college. Every year, it invites individuals who have been vital in addressing challenges that persist within race and democracy. It highlights their work and showcases how others can support democratic equality and democratic practices. In 2022, the distinguished speaker of the event is the Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and author John Quinones. The college also has the Center for Work and Democracy. The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership also runs an annual program titled The Future of Arizona Democracy. Arizona State University is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
24. American University
In 2021, American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies received $1.4 million in external grants. This funding was earmarked to support democratic activity and promote student political engagement. This money went into a program aimed at helping policymakers negotiate more effectively. It also funded a partnership with Purdue University to create incentives to broaden perspectives in American governance across a broader range of demographics. The college’s Sine Institute of Policy & Politics also acts as a base to promote pro-democracy initiatives across disciplines. Its purpose is “to fuel and facilitate ongoing dialogue and debate to gain insights and engender knowledge.” The Center for Latin American and Latino Studies has also performed extensive work strengthening democracy throughout Latin America. One example of this work is running community councils in Venezuela. American University is also a participant in Democratic Erosion.
23. Duke University
Durham, North Carolina
Sine 1973, Duke University has run the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy. It analyzes how media and policy interact, supporting “watchdog and accountability reporting in the US and worldwide.” The college also runs a program named Democracy at Risk. The program works with organizations based in Washington, DC that aim to preserve and defend American democracy and democratic principles. Additionally, the Hard Leadership Program runs The Democracy Lab. This collaboration allows students to participate in programs that make democracy more representative. Duke University is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
22. University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana
In early 2022, the University of Notre Dame announced that it had created a significant new initiative: the 1-6-25 project. This initiative has the primary goal of understanding and averting threats to democracy. It is being run by The Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy. The Center’s mission is to research critical issues facing the USA’s democratic system. Additionally, one core focus of the college’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies is researching democracy worldwide to promote human welfare. Inside Higher Ed notes that the University of Notre Dame’s former president, Father Ted Hesburgh, was a leading figure in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
21. University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Since 2008, the University of Michigan has housed The Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. Throughout this center’s existence, its activities spread from focusing on countries in Europe and Eurasia to across the world. And in 2021, the Center received a significant boost when a member of its policy board, Damon Wilson, was named the president of the National Endowment for Democracy. The college also runs Democracy & Debate. This university-wide initiative promotes free speech, civic skills, and the responsibility of strengthening democracy in the Michigan community. Edsurge consults with Charles H.F. Davis III, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, for information on how colleges can promote democracy.
20. Stanford University
In 2021, Stanford University announced that it would no longer schedule classes on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Instead, college students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to participate in work promoting democracy and civic engagement. On the first “Democracy Day,” the college held various events. This included discussions with senators to encourage democratic activity and civics education. And in 2022, the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law launched a news digest. Its purpose is to analyze politics, economies, and societies in the Arab world. The college also runs the Center for American Democracy, the Center for Deliberative Democracy, and the Democracy and Polarization Lab. The Atlantic highlights how Stanford University collaborated with other colleges to promote democracy in the 1980s and is piloting new democracy-focused courses.
19. George Mason University
In 2021, George Mason University launched Democracy Lab, a first-year learning community. In its inaugural year, this community has brought together 60 students to strengthen democracy. These students live together with a shared commitment to finding opportunities to participate in promoting and protecting democratic principles and civic engagement. The college’s Center for Social Science Research also has a project focusing on building democratic participation locally, named Democratizing NOVA. It hosted a summit in April 2022. George Mason University is also a member of Democratic Erosion and the American Democracy Project.
18. James Madison University
James Madison University is home to the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement. The center’s focus is on inspiring people to address public issues and create an inclusive democracy in a nonpartisan manner. One example of this center’s work is the Woodson Martin Immigration and Democracy Initiative. The civics education initiative educates its communities on immigration issues. It also assists immigrant and refugee communities with democratic engagement. This gives marginalized groups a greater voice. James Madison University is also a member of Democratic Erosion and The American Democracy Project.
17. University of Louisiana at Lafayette
The Kathleen Babineaux Blanco Public Policy Center is housed at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. It strengthens democracy by conducting policy-related research and promoting civics education among college students. It also hosts events to advance policies and assists policymakers with its expertise. Former Governor of Louisiana Kathleen Babineaux Blanco spearheaded the development of this center. Recent research at the center includes an analysis of Louisiana’s coastal financing and a policy brief on the adequacy of the state’s transportation infrastructure. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is also a member of Democratic Erosion and The American Democracy Project.
16. University of West Georgia
The Center for Future Democracy calls the University of West Georgia home. Its mission is to sponsor “educational and research activities that promote a knowledge and understanding of popular participation in governing.” It accomplishes this civics education goal through the following:
- published works
- sponsored speakers
The college also runs the Thomas B. Murphy Center. This non-partisan organization partners with students, faculty, and other community members to create political, social, and economic changes. The higher education institution is also a member of Democratic Erosion and The American Democracy Project.
15. California State University, Dominguez Hills
In 2003, the government of California signed into law the California African American Political Institute. Since then, the institute was renamed the Mervyn M. Dymally African American Political & Economic Institute. Presently, the institute runs many events that promote the goal of strengthening democracy and civics education. This includes those that demystify the defunding of the police movement. California State University, Dominguez Hills, is a member of Democratic Erosion and the American Democracy Project.
14. The Ohio State University
The leading center of democratic endeavors at The Ohio State University is The Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability. This higher education center mobilizes the college’s resources to improve the public good on a local, state, national, and international level. One of this institute’s current projects toward strengthening democracy and civics education includes the Connecting to Congress Initiative. This initiative aims to create engagement between members of Congress and their constituents. Another is the Common Ground for Action Ohio: The Opioid Crisis. This initiative aims to assess public opinion on Ohio’s opioid epidemic. Edsurge consults with The Ohio State University’s professor of educational administration, Matthew J. Mayhew, to discuss how colleges can continue strengthening democracy. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
13. Tufts University
The signature project of Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education is the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement. This study initially collects student voting information from over 1,100 colleges in America. The final study then informs educators about strengthening democracy and increasing political learning opportunities through civics education. Additionally, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life “studies and promotes the civic and political engagement of young people.” In September 2021, this college hired a new dean. Dayna Cunningham aims to run several initiatives that support American democratic principles as the nation becomes more demographically multiracial. EdSurge highlights that Tufts University’s director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education actively discusses political issues with students.
12. Johns Hopkins University
In August 2021, Johns Hopkins University held its first-ever Democracy Day. This event was “designed to prompt first- and second-year students in particular – to think critically about the political world they inhabit and their rights and responsibilities as citizens and democratic actors. This day reserved for strengthening democracy included pop-up seminars, voter registrations, and informal discussions about democratic principles. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, the college also created The Democracy Project. This project involved the college’s scholars examining threats and opportunities to democracy. Both The Atlantic and Inside Higher Ed praise Johns Hopkins University’s president for authoring the book What Universities Owe Democracy.
11. The University of Memphis
In 1996, the civil rights activist Dr. Benjamin Hooks opened The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at The University of Memphis. Ever since, this center has worked in an interdisciplinary manner to frame and solve community problems toward strengthening democracy. Many of its activities have promoted democracy and civics education. For instance, in 2019 and 2020, it ran an exhibit highlighting how African Americans fought for the right to vote in Tennessee. The University of Memphis is also a member of Democratic Erosion and The American Democracy Project.
10. Salem State University
In 2019, Salem State University opened the Frederick E. Berry Institute of Politics and Civic Engagement. Its primary aim is to inspire diverse learners to pursue political and public service careers. It also conducts various other activities to strengthen democracy, such as driving voter engagement and awarding scholarships in civics education. Additionally, the college has also been home to the William H. Bates Center for Public Affairs since 1969. This center has several objectives. These include fostering government and political academic excellence, providing the local community with political resource access, and more. Salem State University is a member of Democratic Erosion and The American Democracy Project.
9. University of Pennsylvania
The Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement exists to ensure that the gains of a globally engaged world are shared. The center recently worked with the George W. Bush Institute and Freedom House to run The Democracy Project. This project surveys American attitudes to democracy and US initiatives that promote international democracy. The college also runs The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. This institute was formed in 2017 to continue to work of the college’s Penn Program for Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism. In the 2021-2022 academic year, this center focused on social changes and the global aspects of the Middle East. The college’s Annenberg School for Communication also runs the Democracy and Information Group, which works toward strengthening democracy. Its mission is to explore how political communication impacts society. The University of Pennsylvania is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
8. Loyola University Chicago
In 2021, Loyola University Chicago announced that it was opening the Rule of Law Institute thanks to a $6 million gift. Of all the activities this institute is running, the most important in strengthening democracy may be The Center for Policy, Legislation, And Governance. In late 2021, the higher education institution hosted its 12th annual Constitutional Law Colloquium. The event featured Richard H. Pildes as the keynote speaker, who “is one of the nation’s leading scholars of constitutional law and a specialist in legal issues affecting democracy.” Edsurge consulted with one of the college’s professors in its article about how colleges can promote democratic principles to strengthen democracy.
7. Columbia University
New York City, New York
One of the major areas of focus of Columbia University In The City Of New York’s Columbia World Projects is democratic renewal. In recent years, this focus has produced some significant work in strengthening democracy and civics education. For instance, it compiled a report named “Building Trust: Election Administration and the Role of Higher Education.” This project was executed by bringing together bipartisan experts, including lawmakers of four US states that were key in determining the outcome of the 2020 election. Columbia University also runs the Constitutional Democracy Initiative, which currently leads several pro-democracy and civics education projects for strengthening democracy. The college has also launched a conversation series called Awakening Our Democracy. The series features many democracy-focused thought leaders, advocates, journalists, and scholars. The Atlantic notes that this higher education institution has run a democratic citizenship course for over 100 years. Columbia University In The City Of New York is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
6. Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana
The James F. Ackerman Center for Democratic Citizenship is based at Purdue University’s School of Education. Some of this center’s current programming includes creating an event to celebrate Constitution Day and running workshops on Holocaust remembrance. It also runs a competition for college students to create action plans to address local issues and assists people to successfully apply to become US citizens. In late 2021, the college was also proud to announce that the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge had named its voter engagement action plan the best compared to peer institutions. The college’s partnership with Indiana University also runs the Center for Service & Learning, which works toward strengthening democracy. This center creates the Educating for Democracy Series to promote civics education among young people. The Atlantic notes that Purdue University has made civic literacy a requirement for graduation. Through its partnership with Indiana University, the college is also a member of the American Democracy Project.
5. University of Virginia
In 2018, the University of Virginia launched the Democracy Initiative with the goal of strengthening democracy. This initiative brings together “scholars, government leaders, and practitioners to study and advance the prospects of democracy around the world.” And in 2021, a $50 million gift to the college led to the creation of the Karsh Institute of Democracy. This institute identifies new collaboration and project opportunities across different departments within the college. EdSurge highlights the University of Virginia’s new democracy institute. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
4. The University of Chicago
Three institutes within The University of Chicago exist to support the goal of strengthening democracy and civics education. These are The Chicago Center on Democracy, The Institute of Politics, and The Center for Effective Government. The Chicago Center on Democracy has been incredibly successful in forming partnerships with other universities. It has become the administrative home of Bright Line Watch, which collaborates with political scientists from Dartmouth College and the University of Rochester to monitor democratic practices and their threats. The Institute of Politics ensures that the college’s students engage in US democracy and community service. It is also collaborating with several different organizations to promote democracy. For example, in April 2022, it hosted a conference on disinformation and democracy in collaboration with The Atlantic. The primary efforts of the Center for Effective Government are to strengthen democratic institutions and find ways for the government to solve public problems with democratic principles. In 2022, the center announced that it had created the Data & Democracy Initiative with the college’s Data Science Institute. This initiative provides information, tools, and software to help the work of those attempting to strengthen democracy. Inside Higher Ed notes that in the 1930s and 1940s, The University of Chicago’s president was an important figure in strengthening democracy. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
3. Georgetown University
In 2002, Georgetown University founded the Center for Democracy and Civil Society. In the two decades since, the center has conducted various research, advocacy, and partnership efforts to promote civics education. Currently, it is running a project that assists the Tunisian people in strengthening democracy. It also highlights different perspectives through theatrical performance. Students have also published an annual journal named Democracy & Society. The journal features points of view from a range of political leaders and scholars. The Atlantic notes that in the 1980s, Georgetown University was a founding member of Campus Compact, which promotes civil service. By 2019, Campus Compact had grown to over 1,000 institutions dedicated to community service. EdSurge highlights the work of the college’s Center on Education and the Workforce’s 2020 report. This report focuses on using education to prepare students to combat authoritarianism. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion.
2. Indiana University
To date, the Center for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University has worked with reform leaders in nations worldwide to strengthen democracy globally. This includes Myanmar, Libya, Ukraine, Yemen, Vietnam, and the USA. The center has three primary focuses:
- promoting gender equality
- fostering accountable government
- enhancing the college’s community
The college has also housed the Center on Representative Government since 1999. This center organizes several pro-democracy and civics education initiatives. Examples include conducting annual surveys on congressional performance and creating apps that highlight the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Indiana University’s School of Education is also a member of College Civic Learning. The college is also a member of Democratic Erosion, and various campuses within the college are part of The American Democracy Project.
1. Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island
In 1986, Brown University opened the Swearer Center. At the time, the center’s focus was on bringing public engagement into the college’s civics education curriculum. Presently, this center runs several programs that allow students to engage in pro-democracy efforts as well as community service. For instance, the Brown in Washington Summer Signature Program pays students to intern with a public agency or think tank. The center is currently forming a strategic plan for the future. And since 2003, the college has run the Political Theory Project. This project aims to create an informed debate between people with different beliefs. In 2020, because of the initiative’s growth and anticipation of future expansion, The Political Theory Project moved to a new building. Other departments within the college also run initiatives that focus on strengthening democracy. For example, in 2020, the college’s Office of the Provost held a talk called Race & Democracy in America. It brought together professors of different backgrounds to discuss the issue. The Atlantic praises Brown University for its work with other colleges in the 1980s to form the political service-oriented organization Campus Compact. This organization had grown to over 1,000 institutions by 2019. The College is a participant in Democratic Erosion. The college’s Swearer Center is also a member of College Civic Learning.
This concludes our ranking of the 30 Colleges Strengthening Democracy.
- 30 Colleges That Have Changed A Lot Over The Last Five Years
- 30 Colleges That Have Made Great Strides In LGBTQ+ Acceptance
- 30 Colleges That Have Strong Links To America’s Prospering Industries
- 30 Colleges That Strengthened International Relations Despite The Pandemic
- 30 Colleges With Strong Cybersecurity Systems And Innovations