Reconstituting Civic Engagement for Tomorrow’s Students

A well-rounded liberal arts education ideally prepares students to function at many levels in a democratic society. This emphasis on shaping students holistically can help them refine a range of marketable skills that transcend singular jobs or professions. But despite the merits of the liberal arts in general, efforts to justify their value are continually dismissed under blistering critiques.

With the declining economic realities facing the last couple of generations of young people, insecurities are defining choices about and perspectives on higher education. In the face of diminishing economic security among a larger percentage of the US population, the liberal arts are increasingly being deemed as irrelevant and incapable of providing the necessary training for highly paid jobs.

With higher education’s increasing price tag, parents, students, and others simply must question the degree to which an undergraduate education is a sound financial investment. Those of us who continue to champion the liberal arts know that a liberal arts education can nurture a wide range of useful skills for careers and life. We know that higher education is not only about preparing for financial success. However, we must recognize and understand the sharpening viewpoints driven by economic uncertainties from households to schools all the way to the president of the United States.

An even smaller subset of those of us who champion the liberal arts see promise in experiential learning. We believe students’ civic engagement through service learning and community partnerships can complement a liberal arts curriculum, infusing it with real-world practicality and a sense of purpose or justice.

Students involved in community partnerships can apply their learning in any discipline in the process of solving problems faced by local communities or those in various parts of the country or world. The field of civic engagement in higher education has expanded over recent decades, as many educators have come to realize that applied learning is more interesting to students and prepares them on many levels. Engaged learning deepens students’ understanding within a given subject matter, and the problem-solving activities in which students are engaged in communities are closer to the practical skills required in the workforce.

However, while projects designed to examine concerns in critical matters such as education and health may benefit the students they engage, they cannot come close to moving the needle on any of the major social indicators confronting vulnerable populations. And, as demographics shift, the student body of the future will be even less financially stable and more diverse. Certainly civic engagement experiences could benefit the preparation of these less traditional college students, but their priorities are far different. Lower-income students, coming from under- resourced primary and secondary schools, not only have to catch up academically but also have to generate income for survival while in school.

The next generation of college students will also include many older students either returning to the classroom or continuing to progress through a much longer trajectory toward a degree. We can already see this complex dynamic playing out for today’s lower-income students, who are more likely to enroll in community colleges. Many of the elite colleges with substantial civic engagement activities are largely inaccessible to these students.

Certainly a liberal arts education infused with experiential civic engagement activities can be beneficial to students from all walks of life. However, this brand of a college experience must be reconstituted in order to be more relevant to lower-income students and have a greater impact in the communities where civic engagement activities are taking place.

David J. Maurrasse is founder and president at Marga Incorporated, and adjunct associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University

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