THE BLOG
11/05/2013 09:24 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Civic Engagement and Higher Education at a Crossroads

For those of us who went in to higher education in part to hide out in the ivory tower, it looks like the party is over. What we do, how we do it, how well we do it and how much it costs have now become matters of significant public and political debate. The challenges are well known and clear. Cost and access have arguably always been of concern, but never more so than now.

Other prevailing issues demand reflection and response. Students are graduating with crushing debt burdens, and their potential employers are telling us that they are not prepared for the work place. The explosion of online education and in particular the rise of MOOCs threatens to provide something for "free" that many of us are charging nearly $60,000 a year for. Our very home communities are questioning our value to them, especially as many of us are exempt from paying property taxes.

Simultaneous to this "crisis" in American higher education is the continued growth of the civic engagement movement on our campuses. Civic engagement is not, of course, a panacea for the ills of higher education, but it can be part of the solution.

There is evidence to suggest that the growth and sustained role of civic engagement on our individual campuses is institutionalized across higher education. Such evidence includes the national prominence of Campus Compact; the multiple professional associations and conferences now dedicated to its various forms; the advent and institutionalization of the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement; and the increased number of accrediting bodies that demand we track our engagement.

Our civic engagement may be curricular or co-curricular, referred to respectively as service-learning or community service. That engagement may also reflect a larger institutional strategy, sometimes in the form of an anchor institution approach where colleges and universities are looked at as economic players in their home communities and strategic investments are made in real estate and work force development, along with coordination of human, financial, and social capital into affecting local social issues like K-12 education. Other institutions have made major investments in civic engagement programs or Centers that seek to focus and enhance a college or university's efforts in this area.

But the question for the movement is whether this unique historical moment will be a time where we are able to propel civic engagement forward. While there are impassioned advocates for higher education's civic engagement across faculty, administrators, staff and students, the movement largely still rests at the margins of higher education. Not to overstate but "service" is ancillary to the research and teaching missions. It is considered sprinkles on the cake, not the bottom layer from which all other efforts emanate. But it can be.

As for educating students with competencies and skills that will be valuable now and in the future, emerging evidence on community-based, applied learning suggests that these opportunities may make the difference. Those students who work in groups on problem-solving tasks with real-world import, either through a class or community service project, are more likely than those who do not learn in this way to work well in groups, to engage with those who are different from themselves, and to apply what they learn in the classroom to real world settings. With the advent of online learning, community-based learning may highlight the larger value of this work. The community is the world in which the students will work, not a simulated case; it is a trial run that may make them ready for the workplace. Interestingly, not only do potential employers want this, but our students do too. Net Impact, in its recent "Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012" reports that 72 percent of students say that a job where they can make in impact is very important or essential to their happiness, only to be outranked by financial security and marriage.

If these outcomes are indeed likely, then why is this engaged pedagogy not more institutionalized? One reason might be that many perceive the civic engagement enterprise as one that threatens our very understanding of where knowledge and expertise can be found. The most traditional models of our colleges and universities locate expertise with our faculty operating in their labs and classrooms. Some may see the civic engagement enterprise as a threat to this, as students and community partners become the source of knowledge and expertise. In reality, this need not and should not be seen as a threat; in fact, the best civic engagement is when all three of these sources of expertise and knowledge partner in the educational endeavor.

As for engaged scholarship, the pursuit of knowledge is increasingly more about innovations that create social change than it is knowledge for knowledge's sake. This is evidenced in recent campaigns launched by research I institutions where scholarship is described for its impacts on society. Situating scholarship up under a larger institutional approach to engagement may increase its potential for impact. Research agendas and projects may be attached to our home communities in ways that "move needles," creating measurable change in entrenched social issues while also building knowledge.

Of course the challenge to this approach rests with academic freedom and individual faculty autonomy. This type of research is also messier in the real world lab versus the laboratory, and it takes longer to develop and execute. Many faculty also do not know how to conduct this type of research or even how to develop mutually beneficial partnerships. And of course, many tenure and promotion guidelines still lump this type of research under "service," devaluing its larger contributions. But as the research in this field grows, and as institutions reward this kind of work, some of the obstacles to engaged scholarship may fall away.

We are not naïve enough to argue that civic engagement is the panacea for all that threatens higher education in the United States. We do, however, strongly believe that it is part of the argument we need to make about the important role that our institutions have to play in addressing societal and global problems. Whether this happens because of the direct service of our students, the scholarship and expertise of our faculty, or the investments made directly by our institutions, this is indeed the moment to underscore and amplify the public contributions we make. We fail to do so at our own peril.