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Community Engagement, Cohorts, and Capstones

High-impact practices in the Bonner Program

April 1, 2020

For the past thirty years, the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation has helped colleges and universities support access for low-income students through its model of work-study financial aid, cohort-based learning communities, and a “rigorous, developmental progression of community engagement which is reinforced with regular training, education, and reflection,” said the foundation’s website.

Research from AAC&U and others has found that high-impact practices (HIPs) can have strong, positive effects on student learning, especially when supported by continuous effort, mentoring, and feedback.1 These practices are particularly effective for students from underserved communities, such as underrepresented minority, first-generation, transfer, and low-income students.2

The Bonner programs provide access to several HIPs, including first-year experiences, diversity and global learning, internships, service-learning, and capstone projects.

“As the research suggests, most low-income and first generation students often complete college with only one or two high-impact educational experiences,” said Ariane Hoy, the Bonner Foundation’s vice president for program and resource development. “The Bonner Program, like many multiyear community engagement programs, intentionally provides students with a scaffolded experience in high-impact practices, from the first year to a capstone. While addressing issues in communities in a developmental way, students reflect on and apply academic learning, find mentors, gain feedback, and grow as leaders and change agents.”

In a recent Bonner Foundation impact survey summarized below, first-year students and seniors from Bonner’s network of sixty-five institutions reported that HIPs affected their learning and promoted high levels of engagement with their campus, communities, and civic life.3

Student Support and HIPs Lead to High Satisfaction

  • According to the Bonner survey, most first-year students (83 percent) reported being very satisfied or satisfied with their college experiences, and 87 percent strongly agreed or agreed that Bonner contributed to their satisfaction.
  • The report attributes much of this satisfaction to Bonner’s support system of “high touch” activities for first-year students, including a cohort structure with ten to forty students per class; a special first-year orientation; reflection and training; and mentoring and support by peers, administrators, and faculty.
  • Eighty-three percent of Bonner seniors said that they had a mentor, often a Bonner director or coordinator, faculty member, community partner, or peer (see figure 1).
  • Bonner students were committed to their institution, with less than 2 percent saying they “frequently . . . considered leaving this institution or quitting school,” and 60 percent never felt this way. Similar percentages of students frequently (less 2 percent) or never (59 percent) “regretted my decision to enroll” at the institution.

Figure 1.


Experiences with Diversity

  • Diversity is a priority of the Bonner Foundation. Less than half (46 percent) of Bonner students are white, and at least 85 percent of students in the Bonner Scholar Program (the program for students receiving financial aid from the foundation) are from low-income backgrounds (eligible for Pell Grants).
  • According to the report, promoting a campus climate welcoming of diversity helps students (both first-years and seniors) explore their identities and find a sense of belonging and community connectedness.
  • Nearly all seniors (96 percent) say that they “respect and appreciate people’s diverse social identities.”

Learning about the Community

  • Seniors reported that they learned a lot about the issues affecting their communities. At least 90 percent said that they learned about (1) community issues needing to be addressed; (2) the history, traditions, and challenges of the community; and (3) how they can make a positive impact on these issues within the community.
  • After working with community partners, nearly all students (96 percent) said that they learned “from the people I serve.” Students also reported significant impacts from site supervisors and staff, other student leaders, or their work on real challenges and problems (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Impacts of Community Partners on Student Learning


Integrating HIPs

  • Most seniors (88 percent) said that “the integration of my service experience with my academic experience has supported my growth and learning” (see figure 3).
  • Students in the Bonner Program integrate several other HIPs within their academic program. More than three-quarters of seniors (78 percent) had completed a full-time summer internship, 60 percent finished “a significant project in my junior or senior year that connected my service and learning,” 45 percent completed a required capstone in their major connected to service, and 37 percent traveled abroad for an international service or study experience.
  • Not all students, however, experienced this integrative learning. A third of seniors found it somewhat or very hard to find formal opportunities to integrate service and academic work.

Figure 3.


Training Future Leaders

  • Bonner helps students become leaders on their campus and in their communities. Seventy-two percent of seniors say that they led student organizations on campus, and 17 percent were elected to student government.
  • Nearly all seniors (95 percent) reported that they “learned how to mobilize people or organize people to work on a project.”

Students Experience Growth in Civic Engagement Outcomes

  • According to the report, “Civic engagement was one of the highest areas of gains between the first and senior year, second only to academic integration.”
  • Almost all seniors (93 percent) think it is “important for them to vote and be politically involved,” and more than half have “an interest in serving in public office (school board, city council, congress, etc.).”
  • Seniors say that their commitment to civic engagement and their communities will continue after graduation. Ninety-two percent are interested “in finding a career path where they can contribute to the wellbeing of society,” and “roughly 85 percent of Bonner Seniors plan to use knowledge they gained to solve community problems after college.”
  • Many seniors cited postgraduate career interests related to the public good, including working for a nonprofit (40 percent); social work, psychology, or human services (30 percent); civic service, government, or policy (27 percent); and preschool and K–12 education (25 percent).


1. George D. Kuh, High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2008); Jillian Kinzie, Gregory M. Weight, and Ariane Hoy, “Developing Greater Impact with High-Impact Practices: Internships and Civic Engagement” (PowerPoint presentation, the Centennial Annual Meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Washington, DC, January 21–24, 2015), https://www.slideshare.net/BonnerFoundation/aacu-presentation-internships-upload.

2. Ashley Finley and Tia B. McNair, Assessing High-Impact Learning for Underserved Students (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013), https://www.aacu.org/assessinghips/report.

3. Statistics and images in this article, unless otherwise cited, are from the Bonner Foundation’s March 2020 report, The Bonner Program: Proven Impacts: Findings from the 2019 Bonner Student Impact Survey.