Service Year Opportunities and the Public Purposes of Higher Education

Education played a key role in the emergence of the United States as the world’s leading democracy in the twentieth century. One part of that story is the American experiment in free and compulsory primary and secondary education. But another crucial element is the role of an expanding higher education sector in contributing through teaching, research, and a myriad of other activities to the development of a national community with the capacity to work together to meet challenges and seize opportunities. Evidence abounds that the health of our democracy is threatened. My organization, Campus Compact, is taking steps to ensure higher education’s contribution to democratic renewal, and we believe national service opportunities can play a key role.

Campus Compact is a coalition of colleges and universities dedicated to the public purposes of higher education. Our members are public and private; two-year and four-year; urban, suburban, and rural; tiny liberal arts colleges and massive research universities. While they differ in nearly every respect, Campus Compact members share a core belief: that higher education must contribute to the health and strength of our democracy.

In anticipation of this year’s 30th anniversary, the leadership of Campus Compact took a look at our work in the context of growing inequality and deepening polarization and asked what more we must do to ensure that higher education maximizes its contribution to the public good. We are organized as a network of state and regional Compact, so we engaged leaders from across the network in this discussion. What specific commitments should colleges and universities make to enrich the education of students for citizenship? How can colleges and universities build more effective partnerships to advance progress toward a more just, equitable, and sustainable democracy?

Through a participatory, network-wide process involving students, faculty, staff, administrators, and community partners, we developed a document crystallizing the commitments we collectively saw as essential for colleges and universities to make. The Campus Compact 30th Anniversary Action Statement commits each college and university to take bold steps—embodied in a Campus Civic Action Plan—to make good on our shared principles.

Thus far, roughly 370 college and university presidents have signed on, committing to act to realize five key commitments:

We empower our students, faculty, staff, and community partners to co-create mutually respectful partnerships in pursuit of a just, equitable, and sustainable future for communities beyond the campus—nearby and around the world.

We prepare our students for lives of engaged citizenship, with the motivation and capacity to deliberate, act, and lead in pursuit of the public good.

We embrace our responsibilities as place based institutions, contributing to the health and strength of our communities—economically, socially, environmentally, educationally, and politically.

We harness the capacity of our institutions—through research, teaching, partnerships, and institutional practice—to challenge the prevailing social and economic inequalities that threaten our democratic future.

We foster an environment that consistently affirms the centrality of the public purposes of higher education by setting high expectations for members of the campus community to contribute to their achievement.

Campus Compact is now working to help our member colleges and universities embed these commitments in a meaningful plan of action. Our focus is on helping campuses integrate their various engagement efforts to maximize impact for students, communities, and our democracy. We are thrilled to be joining in a partnership with Service Year Alliance to help our members seize the opportunity to build a service year experience for students into their Campus Civic Action Plans. Service Year Alliance is a joint venture of the Aspen Institute and Be The Change and is a bipartisan organization committed to making a year of full-time service – a service year – a common expectation and opportunity for young Americans of all backgrounds.

We are also thrilled to be partnering with Service Year Alliance for the Service Year + Higher Education Innovation Challenge taking place at the Aspen Institute on April 12. The competition gives colleges and universities the chance to compete for a prize to support the planning and creation of new education-affiliated service year positions. The challenge seeks to promote innovative ideas related to the integration of learning and service during the college experience. More information can be found at http://www.sychallenge.org/

Thoughtfully woven into a larger institutional framework, a service year opportunity can be a powerful tool for deepening civic education, changing campus culture, and contributing substantively to institutional partnerships.

Imagine, for example, a university creating the opportunity for a team of admitted students to spend a year working as volunteers in schools in an underserved neighborhood that is a focus for the university’s engagement. The service year participants would learn a great deal about the lived reality for low-income children while helping to make that reality better. Participants would arrive as first-year college students the next year with greater maturity and the motivation to understand the phenomena they had just witnessed. They would contribute to creating a university community more focused on leveraging its human and intellectual resources for the public good.

We know from research that an intensive experience of service to a community has a dramatic impact on young people. We also know that students are more powerfully influenced by community engagement experiences when they can see that their university is itself committed to positive social goods. The Civic Action Plan process creates an opportunity to connect institutional commitment with service year experiences for maximum impact. That is why Campus Compact is excited to work in partnership with Service Year Alliance to bring this transformative tool to our member colleges and universities.


This post appeared on the Huffington Post Education Blog on April 12, 2016

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