Diversity and Democracy

Linking High-Impact Learning with High-Impact Community Engagement

Higher education is in the midst of a sea change. As David Scobey writes in the recently published volume Civic Provocations,

We all know or sense that the academy today is in the throes of transformation. The knowledge, skills, and values in which students should be educated; the intellectual landscape of disciplines and degrees; the ways in which educational institutions are organized; the funding of teaching, learning, and research—all this promises to be profoundly different in twenty years. The forces of change have resulted partly from our own inertia, partly from the consequences of our success, and partly from broad political, market, and technological developments not of our making. The question is not whether the academy will be changed, but how. (2012, 4)

Seeking ways to approach this inevitable change proactively, Scobey points to the academic civic engagement movement and experiments with publicly engaged teaching. By renewing its commitment to civic and public purposes, he argues, higher education could flourish.

Leaders across higher education have likewise called for a renewed commitment to higher education’s civic mission, providing critical recommendations to the field as it seeks to develop strategies for coordinated leadership and action. In the report A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (2012), the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement identifies the need “to embrace civic learning and democratic engagement as an undisputed educational priority for all of higher education” and calls for renewed energy directed toward community engagement, civic engagement, and service learning.In their white paper Democratic Engagement (2009), John Saltmarsh, Matthew Hartley, and Patti Clayton pose key questions for the next wave of community engagement and suggest a fundamental epistemological reorientation that positions higher education as part of an ecosystem of public problem solving. For example, in the catalyst paper Full Participation:Building the Architecture for Diversity and Public Engagement in Higher Education (2011), Susan Sturm, Tim Eatman, John Saltmarsh, and Adam Bush point to community-engaged scholarship as a means of promoting access and diversity at all levels of the institution and call on colleges and universities to support and value such scholarship. Together, these appeals for action in higher education are sounding a call for a renewal of civic mission while simultaneously reinventing approaches to teaching, learning, epistemology, and engagement.

The Bonner Foundation is responding to this call to action with the Bonner High-Impact Initiative. We believe that the initiative will help integrate critical insights about campus–community engagement, engaged teaching and learning, commitment to access and success, and the importance of inclusion and diversity. We also hope that it will advance the next waves of community-based and service learning, public scholarship, and active citizenship. By working with campus teams that include faculty, administrators, students, and community partners, we aim to pave new avenues that move civic engagement in higher education from partial and peripheral to pervasive, deep, integrated, and developmental.

Leveraging High-Impact Practices

The High-Impact Initiative leverages the powerful research about engaged learning summarized in AAC&U’s College Learning for the New Global Century (2007) and subsequent publications High-Impact Educational Practices (Kuh 2008) and Five High-Impact Practices (Brownell and Swaner 2010). These reports describe research about ten high-impact practices (HIPs)—first-year seminars, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity and global learning, internships and project-based learning, service learning, and capstone courses and projects—that promote higher levels of learning and success for students, especially those from historically underserved populations (Kuh 2007, 1).

The research on high-impact practices resonates strongly with the experiences of Bonner campuses that have collectively graduated more than six thousand Bonner alumni from historically underrepresented groups. The foundation currently engages roughly three thousand undergraduate students annually at private and public institutions in intensive, multiyear service experiences through which they define and apply their commitments to civic engagement, community building, diversity, spiritual exploration, international perspective, and social justice. Most Bonner Scholars and Leaders come from low-income backgrounds. They are often the first in their families to attend college, and many are students of color. Through a cohort-based program, Bonner Scholars and Leaders engage in more than 1,700 hours of developmental community service over the course of four years of college, committing to eight to ten hours of community service each week in addition to regular meetings, trainings, advising, and reflection. Our research suggests that this model is a powerful formula for student success: at every Bonner institution, graduation rates for Bonner students are higher than the institutional average, and at some institutions, their grades are higher than average as well.

Findings from Bonner Foundation surveys have helped us distill how to best link high-impact practices with scaffolded cocurricular engagement. The foundation’s longitudinal student impact survey found that its programs indeed have a deep effect on students, with 100 percent of respondents (representing graduates of twenty-five four-year programs) indicating that they continue to be involved in community service after graduation (Keen and Hall 2008). Survey results also indicated that ongoing opportunities for reflection and dialogue—often with peers, campus or community staff members, or faculty members—are key to program effectiveness. As Keen and Hall write:

The Bonner alumni survey results suggest that students who are embedded in service and dialogue across lines of perceived difference not only value dialogue and reflection with peers, mentors, and faculty, but also are drawn to civic involvement that is more dialogical than simply voting: making online educational efforts with peers and family regarding social and political issues, doing community projects with others, and working with others in a leadership role to improve the community. (11)

Moreover, a 2010 assessment of more than five thousand Bonner alumni (in which about one-third of alumni participated) further examines the long-term outcomes of this type of intensive, multiyear, developmental engagement. Findings from that assessment suggest that structured reflection can be a magnifier for unstructured reflection, and that the Bonner model of engagement can produce civic-minded professionals (Keen, Hatcher, and Richard 2011).

High-Impact Initiative Components

The High-Impact Initiative is our attempt to extrapolate and apply what we know about HIPs and connect it with what we know about best practices for community engagement. In doing so, we are distilling High-Impact Community Engagement Practices (HICEPs), which can act as multipliers for engaged community-based learning. The idea is simple. We believe that all HIPs can be connected with community engagement, and that campuses that make these connections can propel more pervasive, deep, integrated, and developmental levels of academically connected community engagement.

As we have revised Bonner’s service model over the past decade, we have focused on moving from a traditional placement model (where an individual student performs volunteer service) to a coordinated model that promotes results-oriented engagement (sustained by students working over multiple semesters and years). This latter model contributes to both student learning and community capacity building. We have also worked to broaden the notion of service so it includes capacity building, community-based and public policy research, issue forums, organizational development, and other strategies that build community and social capital. Our parallel effort, PolicyOptions, offers a strategy for faculty, students, and institutions to better serve the information and knowledge needs of community and governmental organizations and constituents (http://policyoptions.org/). We are using what we have learned while implementing these strategies to begin articulating HICEPs, which we define from the points of view of faculty, staff, student practitioners, and community partners. In short, these HICEPs include an emphasis on

  • place (place-based learning that incorporates community understanding, context, and assets and includes community voice in defining relationships and projects)
  • humility (knowledge cocreation in which partners, students, and faculty share coeducator status)
  • integration (of both cocurricular and curricular contexts and structures)
  • depth (multi-year strategic agreements for capacity building)
  • development (grounding in appropriate student and partner developmental needs, changing over time)
  • sequence (scaffolded projects evolving over multiple semesters or calendar years)
  • teams (involving multiple participants at different levels)
  • reflection (structured and unstructured oral, written, and innovative formats)
  • mentors (dialogue and coaching by partners, peers, and/or faculty)
  • learning (collaborative and responsive teaching and learning opportunities)
  • capacity building (designed to build the organization/agency over time)
  • evidence (integration of evidence-based or proven program models)
  • impact orientation (identifiable outcomes and strategies for evaluation and measurement).

Over a three-year period, the High-Impact Initiative will engage institutionally-based transformation teams—involving faculty members, community partners, professional staff, and students—in designing and implementing projects that work to integrate both HIPs and HICEPs. While developing these projects, the teams will simultaneously foster the critical institutional change necessary to sustain their success. By systematically linking high-impact practices with civic and community engagement, the initiative seeks to help campuses scale effective community engagement initiatives to maximize meaningful impact for students and communities.

The transformation teams will convene each summer at the High-Impact Institute to design long-range strategic plans for integrating high-impact practices and high-impact community engagement. Institute host Siena College (Loudonville, New York) is an important partner in the initiative. Mathew Johnson, director of Academic Community Engagement and associate professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at Siena, is a project coleader. The college’s Siena Research Institute also offers a valuable assessment instrument, the National Assessment of Service and Community Engagement, which will help participating institutions form a more accurate picture of the depth and breadth of overall student engagement. These data are critical to formulating long-term institutional strategic plans for community engagement.

In its first year, the initiative is engaging nine institutions: Allegheny College (Meadville, Pennsylvania); Berea College (Berea, Kentucky); Berry College (Rome, Georgia); Carson-Newman College (Jefferson City, Tennessee); Saint Mary’s College of California (Moraga, California); Sewanee–University of the South (Sewanee, Tennessee); Siena College; Stetson University (DeLand, Florida); and Washburn University (Topeka, Kansas). This first cohort will engage in sustained work over the initiative’s three-year period, with another eight to ten institutions joining the initiative in the fall of each year. These twenty-eight to thirty institutions will share their learning with the broader Bonner network and with the higher education community through collaboration with partners like AAC&U, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Bringing Theory to Practice, the Center for Engaged Democracy, Imagining America, and the New England Resource Center for Higher Education.

Part of a Greater Whole

Advancing higher education’s contributions to building a healthier, more just democracy is a long-term commitment of which the High-Impact Initiative is only one part. With a goal of impacting both student learning and institutional and community change, the High-Impact Initiative aims to foster the civic mission of higher education and to tap the energy, talent, and intellectual capacities of students, faculty members, and partners throughout the country. We hope that this initiative will play a valuable role in our collective efforts to advance the public mission of higher education as one strategy for community change, conducted in the spirit of reciprocity and commitment to the public good. Ultimately, the initiative aims to forge pathways for higher education to serve a larger purpose in a healthier, more just democracy.

To learn more about the Bonner High-Impact Initiative, visit www.bonner.org.


Brownell, Jayne E., and Lynn E. Swaner. 2010. Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Keen, Cheryl, and Kelly Hall. 2008. “Access to Education through the Bonner Scholars Program: Post-Graduation Service and Civic Outcomes for High Financial Need Students of a Co-Curricular Service-Learning College Program in the United States.” Journal of College and Character 10 (2): 1–14.

Keen, Cheryl, Julie Hatcher, and Dan Richard. 2011. “Engagement Multiplied: The Impact of College-Level Dialogue and Reflection Experiences on Civic Mindedness as Professionals.” Presentation at the International Association on Service Learning and Civic Engagement Conference (IARSLCE), November.

Kuh, George. 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 Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Saltmarsh, John, Matthew Hartley, and Patti Clayton. 2009. “Democratic Engagement White Paper.” Boston: New England Resource Center for Higher Education Publications.

Scobey, David. 2012. “Why Now? Because This Is a Copernican Moment.” In Civic Provocations, edited by Donald W. Harward. Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice.

Sturm, Susan, Timothy Eatman, John Saltmarsh, and Adam Bush. 2011. Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Community Engagement on Campus. New York: Center for Institutional and Social Change, NERCHE, and Imagining America.

Ariane Hoy is a senior program officer at the Bonner Foundation.


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