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New Data on How Campuses Educate Students for Civic Engagement from Association of American Colleges and Universities

Wide Gap Identified Between Campus Aspirations and Student Experiences of Civic Learning and Action

Washington, DC—September 30, 2009—The Association of American Colleges and Universities released today a new report, Civic Responsibility: What Is the Campus Climate for Learning?, highlighting data gathered as part of its signature initiative, Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility.  Written by Eric Dey and his associates at the University of Michigan, Civic Responsibility focuses on whether college students today have ample opportunities to prepare for knowledgeable and engaged citizenship.  It reports quantitative and qualitative findings from the administration of a campus climate survey of faculty, students, student affairs professionals and academic administrators on twenty-three campuses.  The survey, called the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory, was developed and administered through the Core Commitments which has been supported since 2006 by the John Templeton Foundation.

“Some of the data in this report are clearly worth celebrating,” said AAC&U Senior Vice President and Project Director Caryn McTighe Musil.  “As we witness daily the challenges of advancing civil dialogue on important public issues, it is encouraging that across all four of the campus groups surveyed, individuals on a wide array of college campuses strongly agree that civic engagement and learning should be an essential—not optional—outcome of a good college education.  This finding is also clearly reflective of decades of work already undertaken by campuses and national organizations in the areas of civic engagement, service learning, diversity and global learning, and democratic engagement.  We have a long way to go, but we also have many good practices to build on to increase students’ civic knowledge and capacity.”

While the data highlighted in this report suggest a gap between campus aspirations and the actual experiences of many students, there are also encouraging findings that certain campus activities do enhance students’ awareness about the importance of contributing to the community.  These include community service opportunities, campus life activities, and courses where various forms of community engagement are required.  Qualitative comments suggest that the curriculum can play a powerful role in encouraging students to become more civically engaged.  Frequent interactions with faculty outside the classroom also seem to play a powerful role in helping students make connections between academics and “real life,” including their roles as citizens.

“We celebrated Constitution Day a few weeks ago on campuses all across the country.  As campus leaders today—and the authors of our Constitution hundreds of years ago—well understood, the sustainability of our democracy depends on its citizens’ possession of knowledge, judgment, skill, and willingness to engage with other citizens,” said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider.  “There is an emerging consensus among many groups on campus that a continuing engagement with the meaning and application of one’s responsibilities to self and others is a crucial foundation for healthy communities and our democracy.  This engagement should be a central goal of a college education.  AAC&U is proud to be working together with its members to understand better what works in civic learning and to make this goal a reality for every college student.”

Key Findings in Civic Responsibility

There is a Gap Between Campus Aspirations and Campus Realities.

While 58 percent of students surveyed strongly agreed that contributing to a larger community should be a major focus of their institutions, only 41.5 percent strongly agreed that contributing to a larger community currently is a major focus at their college or university.

Campuses are Perceived as Promoting the Value of Community Involvement but Fewer Agree that Their Campus Actually Advances Students’ Knowledge and Awareness of Public Issues.

About half of all faculty and 45 percent of students strongly agree that their campus promotes the value of contributing to the community.  Only 37.7 percent of faculty and 40.4 percent of students strongly agree that their campus actively promotes awareness of U.S. social, political, and economic issues.

Student Skepticism About Campus Focus on Civic Engagement Grows From First to Final Years.

The percentage of students who strongly agreed that contributing to a larger community is a responsibility that their campus values and promotes declines markedly from first to senior year.  The number of seniors who “strongly agree” that their campus actively promotes awareness of social, political, and economic issues is roughly one-half of first-year students who “strongly agree” with that statement.

Campuses Offer Opportunities to Become Civically Engaged, but Few Students Take Advantage of Them.

About half of all students strongly agreed that their institutions offer opportunities for contributing to the larger community, but only one out of five (18.9 percent) students report frequent participation in community-based projects as part of their coursework.  One in four (25.6 percent) report frequent participation in community-based projects that are unconnected to their courses.

“College is a prime moment in life for students to question and redefine their core sense of who they are,” said Anne Colby, senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation or the Advancement of Teaching and Core Commitments Advisory Board member.  “Educators have the potential to contribute to that process in ways that help students build into their evolving sense of self-positive ideals, concern for the common good, and a strong sense of responsibility.  The schools in the Core Commitments initiative are taking a hard and careful look at exactly what the climate is for advancing these important learning goals.  The data in this report will go a long way to helping these schools and others around the country improve that climate and prepare students better for their future roles as engaged citizens.”

About Core Commitments

Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility aims to reclaim and revitalize the academy’s role in fostering students’ development of personal and social responsibility. It is designed to help campuses create learning environments in which all students reach for excellence in the use of their talents, take responsibility for the integrity and quality of their work, and engage in meaningful practices that prepare them to fulfill their obligations as students in an academic community and as responsible global and local citizens. It is supported by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation ( and is a signature AAC&U initiative designed to advance one of four outcome areas identified as essential in AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative.

About the Personal and Social Responsibility Inventory (PSRI): An Institutional Climate Measure

The PSRI is a campus climate survey developed as part of the Core Commitments initiative. It is designed to gauge participants’ perceptions about the opportunities for learning and engagement with issues of personal and social responsibility across an institution. The PSRI was developed in 2006 under the direction of Lee Knefelkamp and Richard Hersh with research assistance from Lauren Ruff. The inventory consists of three types of questions about the five dimensions, tailored for each of the four constituent groups:

  • Attitudinal items: participants choose the degree to which they agree with a statement about the institution (choosing from Strongly Agree, Agree Somewhat, Disagree Somewhat, Strongly Disagree, No Basis for Judgment)
  • Behavioral items: participants choose the degree to which they experience a particular phenomenon at the institution (choosing from Frequently, Occasionally, Never)

About AAC&U

AAC&U is the leading national association concerned with the quality, vitality, and public standing of undergraduate liberal education. Its members are committed to extending the advantages of a liberal education to all students, regardless of academic specialization or intended career. Founded in 1915, AAC&U now comprises 1,200 member institutions--including accredited public and private colleges and universities of every type and size.

AAC&U functions as a catalyst and facilitator, forging links among presidents, administrators, and faculty members who are engaged in institutional and curricular planning. Its mission is to reinforce the collective commitment to liberal education at both the national and local levels and to help individual institutions keep the quality of student learning at the core of their work as they evolve to meet new economic and social challenges.

Information about AAC&U membership, programs, and publications can be found at

About the John Templeton Foundation

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation ( is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for research and discoveries relating to what scientists and philosophers call the Big Questions. We support work at the world's top universities in such fields as theoretical physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and social science relating to love, forgiveness, creativity, purpose, and the nature and origin of religious belief. We also seek to stimulate new thinking about wealth creation in the developing world, character education in schools and universities, and programs for cultivating the talents of gifted children.

The foundation’s vision is derived from John Templeton’s commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship. The Foundation’s motto “How little we know, how eager to learn” exemplifies our support for open-minded inquiry and our hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries. Information about the John Templeton Foundation can be found at