The Effects of Community-Based and Civic Engagement in Higher Education: What We Know and Questions that Remain

Executive Summary

This report assesses the state of research on high-impact practices in higher education and synthesizes research on the efficacy of community-based and civic engagement, specifically. Unlike a literature review, which broadly and inclusively assembles evidence, the focus of this synthesis has been intentionally narrowed to highlight common themes across empirical studies that meet a defined set of criteria for methodological scope and scale. The parameters are designed to emphasize those studies that reach evidence standards for the generalizability of findings.

The results indicate that community-based and civic engagement in higher education have positive outcomes across six key areas:

  • increased personal and social responsibility
  • development of positive mindsets and dispositions
  • improved graduation and retention rates
  • learning gains
  • improved intellectual and practical skills
  • increased career-related skills

While there is rich and considerable evidence about the efficacy of high-impact practices on students’ self-perceptions of their learning and engagement, and a perceived wealth of studies on the learning effects of students’ participation in community-based and civic engagement, this synthesis reveals the gaps in current knowledge. Only fifty-three studies were identified that met our criteria for generalizability. Additionally, only eleven of those studies specifically address outcomes for historically underserved students, and those that do focus almost exclusively on retention and graduation outcomes.

Existing research on community-based and civic experiences among college students most often examine a single community-based practice, primarily service learning. This narrow conception of community-engaged or civic practices has resulted in a paucity of evidence related to experiences such as study away, global learning, internships, field experiences, and community-based research. Campuses and higher education in general would benefit from the recognition of the community and civic contributions of these additional practices through greater study of their associated outcomes.

Finally, nearly all measures of outcomes associated with high-impact practices, including those related to students’ community and civic experiences, rely on indirect, self-reports by students. Direct assessment of students demonstrated skills and abilities, to complement what we know about their perceived outcomes, is needed to more fully understand the scope of the effects of students’ engagement in community-based and civic experiences in higher education.