Diversity and Democracy

Promoting Inclusive Access and Success through Community Engagement

Many higher education institutions support service learning and community engagement programs as a means of promoting students’ civic development and academic success. Yet engagement initiatives also represent a promising strategy for reducing disparities in educational attainment. College students who participate in high-quality community engagement programs experience a wide range of benefits: increased interaction with faculty and peers, opportunities for reflection, more meaningful learning, and an enhanced sense of belonging. These benefits apply to all students, but the National Survey of Student Engagement has suggested that “historically underserved students benefit more from engaging in these activities than white students in terms of earning higher grades and persisting to the second year of college” (Kuh et al. 2007). When community engagement initiatives link college and K-12 students, they can extend these benefits to younger students as well, improving their academic preparation and aspirations by connecting them with older role models.

The reasons to increase students’ access to civic and community engagement programs are thus multiple and compelling. But in order to create educational environments in which a diverse student population thrives, institutions must address financial and cultural barriers to participation. The Midwest Campus Compact Citizen-Scholar Fellowship Program illustrates the potential for such initiatives to have lasting effects for low-income, first-generation, and future college students, many of whom are students of color. The program and related efforts also enrich engagement initiatives by respecting and incorporating the valuable views of students whose identities and experiences encompass multiple traditions of service, community, and justice-seeking.

The Citizen-Scholar Fellowship Program

The Citizen-Scholar Fellowship Program is a ten-state initiative coordinated by Wisconsin Campus Compact. Through this program, student teams work together as agents of civic change in their local communities and campuses. Mentored by a campus faculty or staff member, cohorts of seven or more students on each campus provide each other with support as they collaborate on community-based projects. 

Each fellow in the program devotes at least 300 hours during the year to service. Those in Minnesota use part of that time to conduct inquiry projects designed to inform their institutions about students’ perspectives on campus culture and other factors in student success. In exchange for their service, each participant receives a $1,000 AmeriCorps education award to use toward tuition or other educational expenses. In many cases, participants also earn Federal Work-Study wages for their service. Students not only provide potentially transformative assistance to their on- and off-campus communities, but discover opportunities for self-transformation as well.

Last year the forty fellows at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities served as literacy tutors in local schools and interviewed students from their own high schools about their future college plans. After reflecting on these interactions and their own experiences as students, many fellows reported seeing themselves through a new lens. They gained the confidence to recognize and value their own successes as university students. We think the exercise edged them toward developing what outreach leaders at UCLA have identified as one key to college success: “a multicultural, college-going identity—confidence and skills to negotiate college without sacrificing one’s own identity and connections with one’s home community” (Oakes et al. 2002).

Through their ongoing involvement in the schools, the fellows aim to model that confidence to high school students who might themselves become college applicants, while simultaneously passing on much-needed college preparation skills. Because writing skills are key to the transition from high school to college, this year’s fellows have focused on improving high school students’ writing abilities. To that end, they have incorporated writing preparation activities in the tutoring they provide in local schools, and they emphasize writing skills when they speak with high school students visiting the college campus. At the end of the semester, these students will present recommendations for improved services to leaders on campus, including the directors of the writing and tutoring centers. In sum, these students’ community engagement has done more than advance their own academic success. It has also given students the tools to pass along their new advantages.

Inclusive Practices, Positive Results

The program’s results are promising. Almost five hundred fellows enrolled in the first year, and 87 percent of those who completed the program returned to their institutions, compared with 68 percent of all Pell Grant recipients at the same campuses. Participants also earned an average GPA of 3.11, much higher than the average Pell Grant recipient’s GPA of 2.86. Based on this demonstrated success, the Corporation for National and Community Service has renewed annual funding for 600 fellows, committing the financial support needed to advance this work.

Campus Compact has encouraged program coordinators at participating colleges and universities to integrate the fellows into their overall leadership structures for civic and community engagement. In part, this reflects a response to Vincent Tinto’s caution not to isolate students who face challenging transitions in the process of creating “safe space” for them (Tinto, 2004). It is also a strategy to help campuses build their capacity to support engagement programs that are accessible and hospitable to students of all backgrounds, and that effectively prepare all students to contribute to public life in a diverse democracy.

Fostering more “inclusive and diverse” campus communities is, as George Sanchez has compellingly asserted, an essential step for higher education “to fulfill its rhetoric concerning civic responsibility” (2005). As the example of the Citizen-Scholar Fellowship Program suggests, by intentionally connecting civic and community engagement with college access and success efforts, educators can advance higher education’s educational and civic missions, enhancing outcomes for both students and communities.

For more information on the Midwest Campus Compact Citizen-Scholars Fellowship Program, see www.m3cfellows.org.

Additional Resources on Community Engagement and Retention

Some literature on connections between community engagement and college success includes:

  • Astin, A., L. J. Vogelsgang, E. K. Ikeda, and J. A. Yee. 2000. How service learning affects students, Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
  • Axsom, T., and W. E. Piland. 1999. Effects of service learning on student retention and success. NSEE quarterly. 24 (3), 15-19.
  • Gallini, S. M., and B. E. Moely. 2003. Service-learning and engagement, academic challenge, and retention. Michigan journal of community service learning. 10 (1), 5-14.
  • Keup, J. R. 2005. The impact of curricular interventions on intended second-year enrollment. Journal of college student retention, 7 (1- 2), 61-89.
  • Kuh, G. D., J. Kinzie, J. H. Schuh, and E. J. Whitt. 2005. Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

For Campus Compact’s overview of this literature, see www.compact.org/resources/service-learning_resources.

—Julie Plaut and JoAnn Campbell


Kuh, G. D., J, kinzie, T. Cruce, R. Shoup, and R.M. Gonyea. 2007. Connecting the dots: Multi-faceted analyses of the relationships between student engagement results from the NSSE, and the institutional practices and conditions that foster student success. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. nsse.iub.edu/pdf/Connecting_the_Dots_Report.pdf.

Oakes, J., J. Rogers, M. Lipton, and E. Morrell. 2002. The social construction of college access: Confronting the technical, cultural, and political barriers to low-income students of color. In Increasing access to college, ed. W. G. Tierney and L. S. Hagedorn, 108-9. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Sanchez, G. J. 2005. The tangled web of diversity and democracy. Imagining America, foreseeable futures 4. ctools.umich.edu/access/content/group/1106364909396-12033726/Sanchez_G_CrossingFigueroa.pdf.

Tinto, V. July 2004. Student retention and graduation: Facing the truth, living with the consequences. The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Occasional Paper No. 1.

Julie Plaut is the program manager for academic initiatives at Campus Compact; JoAnn Campbell is the associate director of Minnesota Campus Compact.

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