Magazine Research Corner

Civic Value

What current research tells us about the link between higher education and community engagement—and what we still need to find out

Winter 2023

A wide body of research exists on how participation in community-based and civic engagement affects students while in college. However, the research is limited in two key ways. First, most studies examine evidence drawn from a single campus or a single program, with relatively small samples. While the contributions of such studies are valuable, their scope constrains their applicability beyond the specific contexts under which they were conducted.

Second, existing research most often examines a single community-based practice, primarily service learning. This narrow conception of community-engaged or civic practices has resulted in a paucity of evidence related to a range of practices that contribute to students’ development.

So, despite ample research, we wanted to gather the specific evidence that would enable colleges and universities to make broad claims about the efficacy of civic and community-based experiences on student outcomes. We also wanted to understand the degree to which those claims could be made across a range of community-based practices and associated outcomes. Our resulting synthesis identified a sizable number of studies that would allow such claims to be made.

Nevertheless, the synthesis of these findings illustrates that there is still a need for studies with the scope and scale for extrapolation to general populations of students. The findings also point to a relative dearth of evidence related to effects for underserved students engaged in these community-based and civic experiences, along with opportunities for the incorporation of a broader spectrum of community-based experiences into these types of studies.

—Jessica Chittum, director of assessment and pedagogical innovation at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U); Kathryn Enke, senior advisor for leadership, strategy, and governance at AAC&U; and Ashley Finley, vice president for research and senior advisor to the president at AAC&U

Click here for a PDF of the full winter 2023 Research Corner.

Illustrations by Mark Long