Diversity and Democracy

High-Impact Practices: Promoting Participation for All Students

Certain educational activities, such as learning communities, undergraduate research, study abroad, and service learning, have been identified as high-impact practices (HIPs) because they engage students in active learning that elevates their performance on desired outcomes (NSSE 2007; Kuh 2008). When done well, these practices require students to make their own discoveries and connections, grapple with challenging real-world questions, and address complex problems—all necessary skills if students are to become engaged and effective members of their communities. The strong positive effects of several HIPs are well-documented in extant research about programs that support student learning. Brownell and Swaner conclude that high-impact practices “live up to their name,” noting a wide range of benefits for participants (2009, 30).

Participation in HIPs, including those that emphasize civic engagement (see sidebar), has powerful educational benefits for all students. These kinds of educational experiences are especially powerful for students who may be the first in their family to attend college, and those who are historically underserved in postsecondary education. This article briefly introduces the benefits of HIPs, examines participation in them, and suggests approaches to making these valuable practices more widespread to advance educational equity and social justice goals.

Benefits of HIPs

Most HIPs can have a transformative influence on students’ personal development and educational growth. Research has shown persuasively that HIPs improve the quality of students’ experience, learning, retention, and success, particularly for underserved students (Kuh 2008). Moreover, HIPs are associated with outcomes such as improved graduation rates and narrowed achievement gaps between racial–ethnic groups.

In a report summarizing the effect of selected HIPs (service learning, internships, senior culminating experiences, research with faculty, and study abroad) on certain measures of student persistence and success of interest in the California State University system, Huber (2010) found that HIPs had modest positive effects on final GPA, time to degree, and increases in timely graduation. Results varied by racial–ethnic and socioeconomic background, with HIP participation having differentially positive effects on the GPAs of both Latina/o respondents and Pell grant recipients. Likewise, Latina/o students had significantly lower average times to degree and greater improvements in timely graduation with increased HIP participation. These findings suggest that HIP participation supports student performance and success, with historically underserved students often benefitting more than their peers.

Participation in HIPs

Opportunities like first-year seminars, study abroad, and internships have become more available across a range of bachelor’s granting institutions, both public and private, from large research institutions to small private liberal arts colleges. Increasingly, community colleges have adopted learning communities, first-year experience programs, and internships (see the Community College Survey of Student Engagement’s High-Impact Practices Initiative atccsse.org). Some institutional types are more likely to offer certain HIPs. For example, Carnegie-classified Baccalaureate Arts and Sciences institutions lead in student participation in culminating experiences, study abroad, undergraduate research, and internships, while learning communities are more available at Research Universities. Overall, participation in HIPs at four-year colleges and universities ranges from a high of half of all seniors reporting an internship to a low of 15 percent reporting a study abroad experience (NSSE 2011). A large number of students participate in HIPs that are explicitly engaged with the community, with 48 percent of students participating in service learning.

High-Impact Practices that Emphasize Civic Engagement

High-impact practices of all kinds can involve civic engagement. Examples include

  • partnering with a community agency to assess youth needs as part of a service-learning course;
  • earning credit as an intern in a demanding political campaign;
  • working side-by-side with a faculty member researching local water quality;
  • focusing a community-based senior capstone project on patient use of a free medical clinic;
  • creating a themed learning community on social and environmental justice that includes historically accurate walk-about tours of the city and neighborhoods.

—Jillian Kinzie

While research shows that all students benefit from participating in HIPs, not all students participate equally. For example, first-generation students (defined as those with neither parent holding a bachelor’s degree) were significantly less likely to participate in study abroad or in a culminating experience than their non-first-generation peers. Transfer student participation is low across all HIPs. Disaggregating by race–ethnicity also reveals differences in participation, including a very low proportion (9 percent) of African American students participating in study abroad and a high proportion (53 percent) participating in service learning, exceeding the overall average. In addition, Latino and African American students participate in internships less frequently than white students. Examining results by race–ethnicity reveals persistent inequities and lends insight into how to address them. For example, more responsive financial aid rewards might remedy patterns of low participation in study abroad and internships.

Importantly, these participation rates do not necessarily align with students’ expectations for their college experience. First-year students show high levels of interest in all HIPs, and more students indicate an intention to participate in HIPs than actually do participate. For example, about three-quarters of first-year students report that they plan to hold an internship, and about a third plan to study abroad (NSSE 2011). Results vary little by race–ethnicity, with African American and Latino students showing a stronger interest in service learning, community service, and even undergraduate research than their white peers, but about the same interest in study abroad. At the same time, first-generation students were significantly less likely to plan to study abroad and participate in undergraduate research than their non-first-generation peers. Institutions may be able to better encourage these students’ participation by exploring assumptions and debunking myths about who should participate.

Making HIPs More Widespread

Given the benefits of HIPs, disparities in participation are reason for concern. Interest in making HIPs more widespread has motivated some institutions to examine access and implement initiatives to increase participation. For example, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis has integrated undergraduate research or service learning into its required first-year learning communities, demonstrating a concerted effort to ensure that all students participate in HIPs reflective of the urban commuter experience. The University of Wisconsin–Madison has devised a focused approach to introducing HIPs to new students during orientation and throughout the year via advising, using a curricular map to identify where HIPs occur in the undergraduate program. Hobart and William Smith Colleges have focused on expanding students’ opportunities to experience two HIPs—service learning and study abroad—that are most relevant to their mission. Convinced that these experiences affected persistence and engagement, administrators determined that men and low-income students were underrepresented within them and involved faculty and student affairs in devising approaches to address these disparities.

Educational equity and social justice goals support investments in HIPs that expand participation among diverse student groups. The contemporary focus on using evidence-based changes to increase student success has motivated campuses to adopt HIPs, document their educational benefits, and craft more effective approaches to supporting these practices. However, while research shows that participation benefits all students, not all students take part. Institutions should adopt intentionally structured curricula that make HIPs more widespread and more available to all students.


Brownell, Jayne E., and Lynn E. Swaner. 2009. “High-Impact Practices: Applying the Learning Outcomes Literature to the Development of Successful Campus Programs.” Peer Review 11 (2): 26–30.

Huber, Bettina J. 2010. “Does Participation in Multiple High Impact Practices Affect Student Success at Cal State Northridge?: Some Preliminary Insights.” http://leap.aacu.org/toolkit/wp-content/files_mf/huber_hips_report.pdf.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access To Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). 2007. Experiences That Matter: Enhancing Student Learning and Success. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. http://nsse.iub.edu/NSSE_2007_Annual_Report.

———. 2011. “Fostering Student Engagement Campuswide—Annual Results 2011.” Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.

Jillian Kinzie is the associate director of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and the National Survey of Student Engagement.

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