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COL Free newspapers on campus quickly got students reading

By Graham Spanier

Despite those early reports about low voter turnout among our nation's youth, the actual numbers are in, and they're looking up.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), the 2004 presidential race brought out nearly 21 million voters under the age of 30, an increase of 4.6 million from 2000.

I'm not surprised. As I walked along the Penn State campus this fall, I sensed an intense interest among our students about the presidential election. I was invigorated to see how young people across the country cared about this election, and they proved that by showing up at the polls, some waiting in line for four or more hours on Nov. 2.

Equally invigorating was how well-informed students were about the issues.

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The Penn State faculty took note of this too, and many described the intelligent classroom discussions among informed students with strong opinions.

Newspapers were a major player on campus this fall. We couldn't keep the news racks full. That was refreshing, especially in light of past studies that confirm that the typical college student rarely reads a newspaper.

I have always believed that reading a newspaper every day is a baseline requirement for being an informed and educated citizen. No other medium combines comprehensiveness and depth like newspapers. But when I looked around campus several years ago, I noticed that I very seldom saw students reading papers, or even carrying them.

So in 1997, we took the simplest and most logical step we could think of. We made free newspapers easily available across all of the campuses of Penn State.

The university funds a program to place copies of the New York Times, USA Today and the predominant local daily newspaper in high traffic areas at 20 of our campuses. Students quickly got in the habit of picking them up. The New York Times consumption on campus went from 8 percent to 27 percent, and the Centre Daily Times, the local paper at our largest campus, experienced a jump in student readership from 3 percent to 31 percent.

Our idea has evolved into the national College Newspaper Readership Program. Hundreds of colleges and universities across the country have followed and expanded on our model.

Our results have been impressive. A survey of our faculty found that 78 percent credited the program with improving our students' ability to discuss topical events and issues. More than half our students see a relationship between reading a newspaper and the overall quality of a college education.

The Newspaper Association of America Foundation recently examined how using newspapers in school can engage younger children, and help them to develop lifelong reading habits. The Foundation is the national coordinator of the Newspapers in Education Program, which provides both newspapers and guidance to help teachers use newspapers in the classroom.

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According to the "Growing Lifelong Readers" study, more than 60 percent of young adults with high exposure to newspapers in the classroom say they read a weekday paper regularly. Of those without exposure to newspapers in the classroom, the weekday readership percentage is only 38 percent.

It may seem that in the effort to get more young people to read more papers more often -- and through that connect with the issues that affect them -- giving them free newspapers is a simplistic solution. Simple? Yes. But I can say after more than seven years of experience, it's also effective.

Graham Spanier is the president of Penn State University.

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