Promoting Democratic Engagement During College: Looking Beyond Service-Learning
Kevin Fosnacht & Elijah Howe– Over the past half century, the emphasis of higher education has transitioned from the public good to private benefit. In 2014, over two-thirds of entering freshmen believed that increased earning power was the chief benefit of a college education (Eagan et al., 2015).Meanwhile, the percentage of freshmen who believed that keeping up with political affairs is essential or very important declined from 60 percent in 1966 to 35 percent in 2015 (Astin, Oseguera, Sax, & Korn, 2002; Eagan et al., 2015).
These trends have caused many institutions to reemphasize their responsibility to develop informed students who contribute to our democracy. Over 1,100 institutions are members of the Campus Compact, which seeks to promote higher education as a public good through promoting engagement in service activities (Campus Compact, 2015). Other initiatives such as the American Democracy and Political Engagement Projects have also sought to embed service activities into the curriculum. In turn, an increasing number of institutions now offer courses with a service-learning component designed to increase students’ civic engagement. In 2014, 52% and 62% of first-year and senior students reported taking at least one class that included service-learning, respectively (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2014).
While many researchers have investigated the relationship between service-learning and civic engagement (e.g., Astin & Sax, 1998; Conway, Arnel, & Gerwien, 2009; Cress, Astin, Zimmerman-Oster, & Burkhardt, 2001), scholars have largely failed to distinguish between differences in volunteering and the democratic responsibility to participate in polities and civil society (Bok, 2001). Service-learning is often an apolitical activity that can improve local communities, but cannot always address systemic problems and bring students into formal politics
Consequently, we investigated the relationship between selected high-impact practices (HIPs) and two dimensions of democratic engagement: democratic awareness (“cognitive, attitudinal, and affective involvement in BOTH civil society and the polity”) and democratic participation (“individual and collective actions designed to address public issues through the institutions of BOTH civil society and the polity”) (see Delli Carpini, 2006). HIPs are activities that have been found to impact a variety of educational outcomes. These practices and activities introduce students to diversity, provide them with responsive and meaningful feedback, facilitate interactions with faculty and peers, connect them to settings off-campus, and require them to spend a significant amount of time and effort engaged in educationally-beneficial activities (Kuh, 2008; Swaner & Brownell, 2008). However, limited research has investigated how participation HIPs other than service learning, influences democratic outcomes.
Based on data from a large multi-institutional sample of college seniors, our regression analyses indicated that being part of a learning community and study abroad participation had stronger relationships with democratic awareness than participating in a service-learning course, after we controlled for student and institutional characteristics. We found a similar relationship for democratic participation, as the estimated relationship for learning community participation was significantly stronger than service-learning. Additionally, the estimates for undergraduate research and study abroad were statistically equivalent to the estimated effect of service-learning. This combination of results indicates that service-learning is neither the only HIP that positively influences democratic engagement, nor the most optimal vehicle for improving democratic outcomes.
Integrating service-learning into the curriculum helps improve undergraduates’ democratic engagement. However, it may be possible to improve the efficacy of service-learning on democratic outcomes by taking steps to further connect the service activities to students’ role in their communities or by focusing on the community dialogue required for democratic governance.
Howe, E. & Fosnacht, K. (2017). Promoting Democratic Engagement during College: Looking Beyond Service-Learning. Journal of College and Character, 18(3), p 155-170. doi: 10.1080/2194587X.2017.1338581