In collaboration with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), we are publishing a new report assessing the link between civic engagement, higher education, and participation in democracy. The report draws on studies from the past few decades and focuses on how researchers and practitioners define civic engagement, the nature of the relationship between higher education and civic behaviors and attitudes, the equity implications of civic education, and what the research says about the effectiveness of different types of civic engagement programming.

Our key findings include:

  • There is no one clear definition of civic engagement. The literature is split between those who use civic and community engagement interchangeably and those who argue that the two are similar but distinct concepts.
  • The existing literature is overwhelmingly focused on voting outcomes. Voter turnout or intent to vote are the two most commonly used outcome measures in the literature, particularly in the context of federal elections. While fundamental, voting is one of many forms of democratic engagement, and one to which access can be suppressed.
  • Certain student populations—and the institutions that serve them—are understudied. Despite evidence that civic education programming’s effects differ by demographics, students of color, as well as rural, first-generation, and low-income students are understudied in the literature—as are the institutions that serve these diverse student bodies. Regional public universities in particular are virtually invisible within the literature.
  • The residential experience matters. Nascent research indicates that the strongest institutional predictor of high levels of civic engagement is whether a college or university is residential. This has implications for commuter-dominant campuses, as well as for online instruction.
  • STEM departments in particular could benefit from integrating civic engagement into the curriculum. While incoming undergraduates express similar levels of interest in civic engagement programming or coursework, preliminary research shows that STEM majors are less civically engaged than their humanities and social sciences counterparts and have lower satisfaction with civic engagement opportunities on their campuses.

While this report details the complexities of researching the exact nature of the relationship between higher education and civic engagement, the link between the two is as close to a social science universal truth as there is. This report details what we know so far about that link, and where future research is needed. Most pressing is the need for institutions to prioritize civic engagement in their missions and commit to measuring and tracking civic outcomes alongside established student learning and success outcomes, in order to deepen our understanding of the role civic education plays in shaping learners’ long-term civic attitudes and behaviors. Several avenues for future research and actionable items emerge from our landscape review:

Invest in robust research on civic engagement initiatives. The popular saying is that “what gets measured gets done,” and that holds true for civic engagement initiatives in higher education. Committing to tracking civic engagement outcomes alongside other student success outcomes would not only strengthen the ability to conduct research into the impact of different types of curricular or co-curricular initiatives, it would also strengthen the value proposition of a college degree as a social good.

Prioritize research on understudied student populations and the institutions that serve them. The landscape of higher education institutions—and the students they serve—is highly diverse, across sector, region, Carnegie class, and residential status. Yet, existing research predominantly focuses on and comes from research-intensive institutions. More research is needed to highlight civic engagement efforts, needs, and typologies at other types of institutions, particularly community colleges and regional public universities, given the demographic diversity of their student populations.

Develop studies and interventions designed to further investigate targeted impacts, particularly in the co-curricular context. More research is needed on the differential impacts that civic engagement programming or coursework has on different demographic groups. Given the initial findings regarding the importance of the residential experience, further research is also needed on initiatives targeting non-residential students, with the goal of preempting civic deserts both on-and-off-campus.

Increase and facilitate collaboration. Civic engagement programming and research are both large-scale, long-term efforts in need of systematic collaboration, yet a lot of the work remains siloed. Facilitating and promoting intra-campus and inter-campus collaboration, as well as collaboration with community organizations can strengthen civic engagement initiatives and build robust coalitions of stakeholders.

In a time of growing polarization, the rise of anti-DEIA initiatives, and growing distrust in public institutions, the need for universities to recommit to civic investment is more pressing than ever. Historically, particularly in the US, the university has been an institution dedicated to strengthening democratic principles by championing social mobility, producing knowledge, promoting pluralism, and fostering citizenship education. We hope this report points to ways in which the university can further strengthen its role in shaping active and informed citizens.

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