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Landscape Review Finds More Questions in Link Between Higher Ed and Civic Engagement


While there is a broad understanding that participating in higher education leads to increased levels of civic participation, conflicting narratives exist about this link.

So, Ithaka S+R, a research organization that promotes student success and access to higher education, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) teamed up to compile standing research on postsecondary institutions and civic engagement to find out what is really going on behind the scenes.

In their landscape review, “Assessing the Civic Campus: The Link Between Higher Education and Democracy,” researchers made a series of connections and produced new questions for future work. One important discovery they highlight is the fact that, when students are more civically engaged, they have a better academic persistence and retention.

Dr. Terry Brown, vice president of academic innovation and transformation at AASCU.Dr. Terry Brown, vice president of academic innovation and transformation at AASCU.“The more that students are interested in issues on their campus, or involved in their communities, doing work that’s meaningful in their communities, the more likely they are to persist and less likely to be depressed and anxious,” said Dr. Terry Brown, vice president of academic innovation and transformation at AASCU. “They have a feeling of efficacy and voice and agency, regardless of the issues and regardless of what side they take on an issue.”

Perhaps most interestingly of all, despite students displaying a similar interest in learning about civic engagement when they begin college, preliminary findings of this research suggests that fewer science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses offer civic pedagogical instruction, resulting in STEM majors being less civically engaged than students who study humanities or social sciences.

“It’s an opportunity to think about what co-curricular integration can look like,” said Dr. Ioana G. Hulbert, a researcher at Ithaka S+R and one of the authors of the study. “It’s also a matter of whether it makes sense with the institutional mission, in alignment with public or social good — if civic engagement is also a part of that mission — multiple departments and fields can think about how they want to integrate that in their offerings.”

Brown agreed and added that this study should prompt a lot of questions for institutional leaders and researchers.

“There are campuses and faculty who are committed to developing the civic engagement of students who are scientists, and also linking the understanding of science as an important piece of our civic knowledge,” said Brown. “We need to understand the science of climate change, the science of disease. There are issues now that we face that rely on a certain level of science and scientific knowledge in order to be an informed citizen. That’s an area for us to go deeper.”

The researchers found a dearth of longitudinal studies on the intersection of postsecondary education and civic engagement. The majority of research connects with the idea of voting simply because voting data can be easier to find and access, although voting is not universally available to all students. Doing any kind of long-term study takes both money and people power to track individuals and their actions across the country, said Hulbert, which can be difficult.

Disaggregated research on how civic engagement pedagogies impact students of color, rural, low-income, and first-generation students is also sparse. In general, there is a lack of research regarding how regional public universities, which enroll the majority of minoritized populations across the country, are able to foster civic and communal growth. Most research focuses on Ivy League or R1 institutions. This, said Brown, is one of the many reasons AASCU was keen to partner in this study.

“Regional public universities tend to be under-researched,” said Brown. “They have a strong commitment to the stewardship of place and their communities, and it’s an area of opportunity for us to do focused research on that sector and the work regional public universities have been doing to prepare civically engaged students.”

Dr. Ioana G. Hulbert, researcher at Ithaka S+R.Dr. Ioana G. Hulbert, researcher at Ithaka S+R.There is another hole in civic engagement research: a lack of real consensus around the definition of civic or community engagement. In fact, those terms are often used synonymously, despite arguments that they are two separate ideas. Community engagement more often reflects an understanding of the issues facing a particular place and space, and the work done with that community to confront that issue, said Brown. Civic engagement has more to do with participation in a democracy, she added.

For Hulbert, this lack of singular definition makes research that much harder.

“We found that there are over 48 different definitions for civic engagement, democratic, community, service-based engagement. It’s very widespread,” said Hulbert. “A lot of this work is probably being done, just not framed as civic engagement. [College education] is not just training for a job or upward mobility—it’s also a matter of strengthening democracy.”

Brown called for more institutions to systemically self-analyze their efficacy in teaching civic engagement.

“[This report] shows a longstanding commitment from institutions, and also, an opportunity for us to better understand the impact of this work,” said Brown. “What our challenge is, is to show that this work has an impact on student learning, on the climate on a campus, and on the community and regions where that campus is located.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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