Liberal Education

New Perspectives on Civic Engagement and Psychosocial Well-Being

What are some strategies for strengthening the relationship between “civic engagement” and the “psychosocial well-being” of college and university students, as part of the core mission of higher education? This question is significant, especially at a time when there is concern about the engagement and well-being of college students. Too many of today’s undergraduates disengage from democracy to the extent that there are questions about its future, and too many experience depression and psychosocial conditions that interfere with their academic work. This special issue of Liberal Education is based on the beliefs that civic engagement and psychosocial well-being are interrelated, that colleges and universities are strategically situated to strengthen the relationship, and that strategizing for this purpose will complement the educational mission and democratic purpose of higher education.

Defining the problem

“Civic engagement” occurs when people participate in public work to address issues and create change in their community or society. It can include initiatives to “organize” for social and political action, “participate” in the proceedings of government agencies, “advocate” issues at school board meetings, or other forms of public work. There is no single form of civic engagement that characterizes all approaches to practice.

There is growing concern about the uneven levels of civic engagement among young adults, although the findings are contested. For example, some studies show that the youngest voting-age citizens are less likely than earlier generations to attend public meetings, contact public officials, or vote in elections, although these findings derive from research based upon “formal” measures of “normal” democracy; whereas other young people—often from disinvested and segregated areas—participate with fervor, but in ways that are consistent with their location in society, rather than through voting in elections.

“Psychosocial well-being” refers to such characteristics of positive mental health as are measured by purpose in life, supportive social relationships, feelings of efficacy, and optimism about the future. As a central and growing component of “positive psychology,” psycho­social well-being places emphasis on the conditions that enable people to flourish, rather than focusing on what is wrong with people, and tries to cure what ails them. In a society dominated by curative medicine, mainstream mental health tends to be defined in terms of an absence of mental illness and to address the conditions that require practices to restore health by curative medicine and the treatment of illness.

There is growing concern about the health and well-being of college students. Almost 40 percent of today’s undergraduates self-report experiences of depression sufficient to interrupt their academic work, and an increasing number of them are being diagnosed with clinical depression. More than 25 percent of undergraduates report self-abusive use of alcohol and drugs for the purpose of approaching or achieving unconsciousness. College counseling centers are busier than ever, and most of them lack the resources to meet the demand for services.

Mainstream physical and mental health providers differ from those who focus on psycho­social health and well-being, but both groups view as their unit of practice the individual, rather than colleges and universities—or the society of which they are a part.

Yet if students are disengaged from educational institutions and democratic practices, and if disengagement is a phenomenon associated with education and democracy, then there is reason to view the civic engagement and psychosocial well-being of students in institutional as well as individual terms. I and the other authors represented in this issue believe that civic engagement and psychosocial well-being are interrelated, and that this has significance for higher education.

Colleges and universities are ideally positioned to strengthen the relationship of civic engagement and psychosocial well-being. First, they are civic institutions whose educational mission often expresses a strong public purpose. Second, they have a stake in psycho­social well-being because, simply stated, students who have purpose in life and optimism about the future can be expected to learn more than those who do not. Third, they have intellectual and institutional resources to engage students in education and democracy.

However, too many institutions do not necessarily perceive themselves in this way. They often expressed a public purpose as part of their original mission, but many of them have since taken on multiple purposes, of which civic engagement is only one. A few institutions have reputations for civic engagement, but they are exceptional, not typical in the field.

In addition, many institutions lack sufficient services to strengthen active civic engagement, engaged learning, or the psychosocial well-being of students. They have courses but without the words “civic” or “engagement” in their titles; pedagogical programs but without emphasis on engaged learning; and counseling services but without psychosocial well-being as their focus. It is not surprising that scientific knowledge about these phenomena, and their relationship, is limited.

Bringing Theory to Practice

With funding from the Charles Engelhard Foundation and in partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), the Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) project has stepped forward to develop the relationship among civic engagement, engaged learning, and psychosocial well-being, as fields of practice and subjects of study. BTtoP has formed advisory groups of technical experts, organized national conferences for institutional representatives, and commissioned papers and publications with case studies and empirical evidence. It has supported demonstration projects, conducted cross-site meetings, and built a mutually supportive learning community.

BTtoP assumes that colleges and universities have a level of responsibility for civic engagement and psychosocial well-being, and that they can formulate strategies for addressing them as part of their core mission. It assumes that civic engagement and psychological well-being are not simply about students as individuals who have personal problems that require clinical treatment, but rather about college students as a group that will benefit from active engagement in education and democracy. It does not assume that civic engagement always has positive benefits—indeed, some studies suggest that it does not—or that civic engagement should substitute for clinical care needed for students with severe depression or mental illness. However, it does assume that if institutions are more systematic about strategy, both on campus and in the community, it will affect students’ psychosocial well-being and, in so doing, will contribute to education and democracy.

Bringing Theory to Practice

The Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) project explores and advocates the academic community’s support of engaged learning and the relationship of such learning to student health and civic development. The project is guided by an interdisciplinary planning group of scholars, researchers, practitioners, and institutional leaders. Currently, there are over three hundred colleges and universities across the nation connected to the project, many supported by grants, and many in discussion of these topics on their campuses.

BTtoP was developed in partnership with the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The project is sponsored by the Charles Engelhard Foundation of New York City and by the S. Engelhard Center, a nonprofit public charitable foundation established in 2007 to help young people become independent, fully contributing adults in their communities.
For more information about the Bringing Theory to Practice project, visit www.aacu.org/ bringing_theory.

Special issue

This special issue of Liberal Education provides perspectives on civic engagement and psycho­social well-being. It provides definitions and conceptual frameworks, includes case studies and best practices, and identifies general propositions and unanswered questions from empirically based practice. It includes educators, faculty, administrators, and a student, each of whom has a distinct voice, all of whom care about liberal education.

What do we know about civic engagement? Peter Levine begins the issue by providing definitions of key terms and a conceptual framework for analyzing approaches that strengthen voluntary service, promote positive youth development, and engage young people in social change—such as Freedom Summer, which had long-term psychosocial effects on participants. Each approach has its own assumptions, activities, and outcomes, all under the umbrella of civic engagement.

Constance Flanagan and Matthew Bundick frame the topic in a different way: democracy requires citizens who will engage in government and politics, and because students spend substantial time in colleges and universities that make civic engagement part of the undergraduate experience, these institutions are in a position to affect their democratic behavior and psychosocial wellbeing. They draw upon research studies about civic engagement and psychosocial well-being, and discuss some of the opportunities for higher education.

James Youniss also distinguishes among approaches, which he views from a developmental perspective. Specifically, he draws distinctions between community service and public work, both of which have the potential to promote personal development and enable individuals to enter into civic and political life as confident and competent. Like Flanagan and Bundick, he believes that colleges and universities are ideally positioned for this work.

Shawn Ginwright also examines forms of civic engagement with developmental effects, but writes about urban youth, especially African American youth who face racism, poverty, and injustices in their everyday lives. These youth have less faith in conventional civic engagement, but they do engage, such as when they address police harassment, advocate for classroom heaters, or express themselves through art and poetry. These expressions are appropriate to their situations, and strengthen psychosocial well-being. Most scholars do not study young people like these, most educators do not teach about them, and most college administrators do not consider them—because they are not usually in college but instead remain outside its walls—as the responsibility of higher education. Their civic engagement usually derives from everyday experience or community agencies, rather than through higher education. Do colleges and universities have responsibility for their civic engagement—and, if not, who does?

The next two articles provide case studies of particular programs that integrate civic engagement and psychosocial well-being. First, Jill Swiencicki, Chris Fosen, Sofie Burton, Justin Gonder, and Thia Wolf describe their work at Chico State University, where teachers and administrators use “public-sphere pedagogy” and a “town hall meeting” that combine civic engagement and psychosocial well-being in general education. They conceive of the English composition course required of all entering students as an approach to “writing in the public sphere.” Students select a public policy issue that concerns them, research the issue, and prepare a paper that they present at the town hall meeting to which all campus and community members are invited. The authors analyze this innovative approach, and assess its effects on students.

Second, Patricia Gurin, Biren (Ratnesh) Nagda, and Nicholas Sorensen describe intergroup dialogues that originated at the University of Michigan to enable college students to communicate and collaborate in community projects that usually cross racial, social class, and other differences. They draw upon a national study of nine institutions—Arizona State University, Occidental College, Syracuse University, University of California–San Diego, University of Maryland, University of Massachusetts, University of Michigan, University of Texas, and University of Washington—whose students enrolled in intergroup dialogue courses that were carefully evaluated. They found that dialogue students increased in their intergroup action; openness to intergroup situations; intergroup empathy and motivation to bridge differences; understanding of race, gender, and income inequality; and commitments to social and political action—all elements of civic engagement and psychosocial well-being.

Sarah Yu writes about her experience as a participant in Youth Dialogues on Race and Ethnicity in metropolitan Detroit, a campus-community collaboration of the University of Michigan. As a high school student, she participated in dialogues with other young people of African, Asian, European, Middle Eastern, and Latin American descent. Next, she became a youth policy leader and addressed issues of residential segregation and educational inequalities. Then, while an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, she became an evaluator of the program, before trying to start one of her own in college. Yu believes that the overall effects of her involvement were truly transformative.

What issues arise in assessing the outcomes of civic engagement and psychosocial well-being? Ashley Finley draws upon her experience with both BTtoP and AAC&U, and returns us to basic questions: What is civic engagement? What is psychosocial well-being? What outcomes are important, and what criteria are appropriate for assessing them? Her questions are a reminder that this promising work—to which we hope that this issue will contribute—is still in the making.


Barry Checkoway is professor of social work and professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, and directs the demonstration site program of the Bringing Theory to Practice project. The author wishes to acknowledge Sally Engelhard Pingree and Donald Harward, colleagues and friends, without whom this work would not be.


To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.

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