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Service-learning & college student success.


This study investigates the linkages between service-learning, academic and social integration and undergraduate persistence. Results reveal that first-year college students who engaged in service-learning had significantly higher levels of integration into university communities than those who did not. These data support the notion that service-learning is an effective strategy to engage undergraduates intellectually and socially during their first year in college.


The higher education community has produced much research regarding the impact of service-learning on undergraduates' development of knowledge and intellectual skills, perceptions of moral development or personal efficacy, and civic or social responsibility among other factors. Scholars and practitioners, alike, have demonstrated the connections between involvement in service-learning and undergraduates' cognitive and emotional development (see for a review Eyler, Giles, Stenson & Gray, 2001). Only recently have scholars considered the role of Tinto's theory of student departure for examining the impact of service-learning on undergraduates' perceptions of integration into an educational institution's intellectual and social communities (Mundy & Eyler, 2002). Understanding the relationship between service-learning and integration is particularly important in light of the few empirical studies demonstrating a positive relationship between service-learning and retention. In a recent review of literature, Eyler and colleagues suggested higher retention rates for students who participated in service-learning experiences (Eyler et al., 2001; Mundy & Eyler, 2002).

The current study provides a unique opportunity to fill a lacuna in the literature by exploring the interconnectedness of service-learning, undergraduate academic and social integration, and individual student persistence. The current research is particularly appropriate given the emphasis being placed on applied learning as an influential and powerful programmatic component in undergraduate education (Campus Compact, 2004; Ehrlich, 2005) and its link to persistence (see Eyler et al., 2001; Mundy & Eyler, 2002). Provided this rationale, the goal of the current study is to examine the unique contribution of engagement in service-learning on full-time, first time freshmen's perceptions of academic and social integration into a mid-sized, public doctoral research extensive university, and their subsequent enrollment over time.

Engagement in Service-Learning

The concept of service-learning is multi-faceted. It can be defined as a teaching and learning pedagogy, connecting discipline-specific theories to real-life problems or issues; a practical and direct application of resources from an educational institution to a community to address a defined need, with the expectation that, in turn, students will learn from their experience; and, a mechanism for translating what we know about civics and our country's history into action (Goldsmith, 2005). No matter how it is defined, engagement in service-learning is thriving among certain segments of our nation's population. While only 30 percent of all of our country's citizens volunteer to serve their fellow citizens, the "9/11 generation" (young adults, 18-24 years) has rallied around the national tragedy of September 11, 2001 and shown a sustained spike in community-mindedness, connection, trust in others, as well as other civic behaviors such as voting (Goldsmith, 2005; Putnam, 2005). To respond to the civic mindedness of this generation, and young people in general, educational institutions from elementary schools to colleges and universities have embraced service-learning as a valuable mechanism for engaging their students in the academic enterprise and the larger community.

Service-learning as a Strategy for Student Success

At the same time that higher education administrators are promoting service-learning as a powerful force that has a significant and positive impact on its students, faculty, and neighboring communities, administrators are also challenged by a growing concern with declining undergraduate retention and graduation rates. In fact, nearly half of students who enter a four-year college to earn a bachelor's degree fail to complete their degree six years later (Hebel, 2005; Fiske, 2004). Student departure can be related to a variety of personal and environmental factors including dispositions and attributes associated with life prior to college entrance. However, "researchers generally agree that what happens following entry is, in most cases, more important to the process of student departure than what has previously occurred" (Tinto, 1993: p. 45). One concept key to institutional departure is individual isolation or "the absence of sufficient interactions whereby integration may be achieved" with other members of the social and academic communities of the college (Tinto, 1993: p. 50). Scholars agree that integration within the academic and social communities of an educational institution is vital to understanding student departure above and beyond individual-level predictors, including background characteristics, personality, and academic performance (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1979; Tinto, 1993).

Membership in and integration within the college community forms the basis of Tinto's interactional system model of individual student departure. Specifically, Tinto argues that the extent to which students become integrated within the formal and informal domains of the social and intellectual communities of a campus is directly linked to persistence at an institution (1993: p.137). Moreover, Tinto emphasizes the role the institution plays in student departure, as "institutions also influence the quality of student effort via their capacity to involve students with other members of the institution" (i.e., faculty, staff and other students) (Tinto, 1993: p. 132). By moving beyond psychological theories of departure and turning instead to sociological ones, like Tinto's theory, one can consider how an institution's culture and structure, along with individual dispositions, operate simultaneously to explain undergraduate departure. Ultimately, recognizing the role of the institution within this argument has policy implications for higher education administrators, as they are the change agents that must commit resources to and implement effective retention strategies. One key "principle of effective retention" outlined by Tinto is the "development [and implementation] of supportive social and educational communities in which all students are integrated as competent members" (Mundy & Eyler, 2002; Tinto, 1993: p. 147). Service-learning programs are one vehicle by which higher education administrators can create structured learning experiences that incorporate on-going service and academic, classroom-based reflection to facilitate the development of the type of community integration or membership viewed as so essential by Tinto. And, among other applied learning options, service-learning not only targets the causes of attrition, but also can be implemented to offer every student engagement opportunities through which they can grow personally, hone their knowledge around particular concepts, and develop transferable and practical skills (Hutcheson, 1999; Mundy & Eyler, 2002; UMBC, 2005).

In a recent review of literature, Eyler and associates note only a few empirical studies suggesting higher retention rates for students who participate in service-learning (Eyler, Giles, Stenson & Gray, 2001; Mundy & Eyler, 2002). While prior research demonstrates the impact of service-learning on undergraduate persistence, Mundy & Eyler (2002) note that most studies examining the relationship between service-learning and retention have only looked at specific segments of a student population to assess the efficacy of service-learning as an intervention. When an entire student population has been used in research the studies do not control for student characteristics (Mundy & Eyler, 2002). Most importantly, no known study has empirically tested the relationships among student characteristics, engagement in service-learning, integration, and retention. This study fills the gap in the literature while also empirically testing what scholars have only theoretically proffered regarding the interconnectedness of service-learning with student integration and success. The following research questions were posed to a sample from a 2003 cohort of full-time, first time freshmen attending a mid-sized, public doctoral research extensive university:

1. Which full-time, first time freshmen were significantly more/less likely to engage in service-learning during their first year?

2. What is the impact of service-learning on first-time, full-time freshmen students' academic integration, student social integration, and student-faculty interaction during the first year in college?

3. Are perceptions of greater integration into a university community during one's first year related to retention? Does academic and/or social integration mediate the relationship between service-learning and retention?


Study Design and Sample Data for these analyses were from The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) conducted by NSSE for this mid-sized public doctoral extensive research university in 2004. NSSE is a national survey of first-year and senior-level undergraduates from public and private four-year institutions. The NSSE assesses the extent to which 4-year institutions are providing and emphasizing educational experiences that are linked to undergraduates' learning and personal development. NSSE staff e-mailed all eligible students at this university to complete the web-based version of the survey. The overall 2004 response rates for this institution (38 percent) were comparable to others who administered the web-only version of the survey (41 percent) (NSSE 2004 Institutional Report). The sample for this analysis consisted of 536 full-time, first-year students who were enrolled in AY2004. Women were over-represented in the sample (56 percent) compared to the population (44 percent); thus, all analyses were weighted based upon gender and full-time enrollment status.

Measures Two dependent variables were used in this analysis, and both are dichotomous, categorical variables: one-year retention and two-year retention. One dichotomous categorical variable was used to capture engagement in service-learning [1]. Guided by Tinto (1993) and Pascarella and Terenzini (1991), three multi-item scales were created capturing academic and social integration. Academic Integration includes items such as "Asked questions in class or contributed to class discussion"; "Worked with classmates outside of class to prepare class assignments"; "Discussed ideas from your readings or classes with others outside of class (students, family members, co-workers, etc.)"; "Included diverse perspectives (different races, religions, genders, political beliefs, etc.) in class discussions or writing assignments" (reliability equals .74; 11 items). Student Social Integration includes items such as "Has serious conversations with students of different race or ethnicity than your own"; "Institutional emphasis: Encouraging contact among students from different economic, social, and racial or ethnic backgrounds"; "Institutional emphasis: Providing the support you need to thrive socially" (reliability equals .76; 9 items). Student-Faculty Integration includes items such as "Used e-mail to communicate with an instructor"; "Discussed grades or assignments with an instructor"; "Talked about career plans with a faculty member or advisor" (reliability equals .74; 7 items). For all multi-item scaled variables, factor analyses were used to extract components and reliability analyses were used to assess the inter-reliability of the constructs. Factor scores were used in subsequent analyses. Finally, a number of variables were controlled for, as they are related to engagement in service-learning and/or undergraduate persistence: gender, race, first-generation college, major, dorm status, residency, SAT combined score, and college GPA (CNS, 2005; Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998; Reason, 2003) [2].

Analyses A series of Chi-square and t-tests were used to assess the relationships among student characteristics, engagement in service-learning, integration, and retention; these analyses informed the multivariate models. Two types of multivariate analyses were employed. First, a weighted least squares regression was used to understand the relationships between engagement in service-learning during the first year and full-time, first time freshmen's perceptions of academic and social integration. Second, a series of weighted binary logistic regression models were conducted to understand the relationship between engagement in service-learning and retention over time, and if academic and social integration mediated the relationship between engagement in service-learning and retention.


Bivariate Analysis In this sample, 21.5 percent had participated in a community-based project as part of a regular course (e.g., service-learning) (n = 534). Bivariate analyses demonstrated that two demographic groups were significantly more likely than other students to have engaged in a community-based project as part of regular course during their first year. Namely, African-American students were significantly more likely than other racial groups to engage in these service-learning experiences during their first year. As well, students who lived on campus their first year were significantly more likely to have engaged in a service-learning experience than first-years who commuted [Table 1]. See issue website Regarding the bivariate relationships between engagement in service-learning, integration and retention, first-years who engaged in service-learning were significantly more likely than those who did not to feel more integrated within the campus community on all fronts--academically, socially with peers, and in interactions with faculty [Table 1]. While freshmen who engaged in a community project as part of a regular course during their first year had marginally higher two-year retention rates than those who did not (82.6 percent versus 80.8 percent), participation in a service-learning experience was not significantly related to retention. As well, first-years who reported being more academically integrated and socially integrated with fellow students were significantly more likely to persist over time. As suggested by Tinto (1993), students who perceive that they are more academically and socially integrated into their college communities are better able to persist through their academic career than students who reported lower levels of integration. Ultimately, there was no empirical evidence to support the hypothesis that academic or social integration mediated the relationship between service-learning and retention.

Multivariate Analysis Weighted least squares regression models indicate that after controlling for student characteristics, full-time, first time freshmen who engaged in service-learning were still significantly more likely than those who did not to feel more integrated academically, socially with peers, and in interactions with faculty during their first year [Table 2]. While there was no significant relationship between engagement in service-learning and retention for all first-years, research in the area of service-learning shows that females are more likely to engage in service work than males (CNS, 2005; Jenkins, 2005). As such, an interaction variable was created using "female" and "participated in a community-based project as part of a regular course" (yes = 1). A weighted binary logistic regression model [Table 3] testing this interaction effect revealed that full-time, first time, female freshmen who participated in a community-based project as part of a regular course during their first year were over six times more likely to be retained over the two-year period than other full-time first time freshmen (odds ratio equals 6.588, significance level of less than or equal to .05). Therefore, there is some evidence that engagement in service-learning is significantly related to retention over the long-term for certain demographic groups using this sample.

Conclusion & Implications

These data support the notion that service-learning is an important and effective programmatic strategy to intellectually and socially engage undergraduates during their first year of college. Given that the overwhelming majority of "Campus Compact member campuses include service and/or civic engagement in their mission statements (89 percent) or strategic plan (84 percent)," this current research comports with the priorities of higher education administrators and with goals to enhance undergraduate education with applied learning experiences (Campus Compact, 2004). While the results of the current study can only be generalized to mid-sized, public doctoral research extensive universities, the findings serve as a catalyst to motivate higher education administrators to explore the varied connections among applied learning experiences, undergraduate academic and social integration, and other forms of student success, including undergraduate persistence. By doing so, administrators, faculty and staff can evaluate the promise of service-learning programming for undergraduates at their institutions and, ultimately, adopt and institutionalize service-learning as a best practice to engage every undergraduate on their campuses.


Campus Compact (2004). 2004 Service Statistics: The Engaged Campus, Highlights and Trends of Campus Compact's Annual Membership Survey.

Corporation for National and Community Service (CNS). Accessed: 11/18/2005.

Ehrlich, T. "Service-learning in undergraduate education: Where is it going?" Carnegie Perspectives: A different way to think about..., Accessed; 07/27/2005.

Eyler, J.S., Giles, D.E., Stenson, C.M., and C.J. Gray (2001). At-a-Glance: What we know about the effects of service-learning on students, faculty, institutions, and communities, 1993-2001. University of Minnesota: National Service Learning Clearinghouse/Corporation for National Service.

Fiske, E. (Spring 2004). "Refuse to lose: Today's colleges and universities must work to foster student success," A report of the Lumina Foundation, Focus.

Goldsmith, S. (2005). "Opening address: A new civic era," National Conference on Citizenship, Annual Conference, September 19, 2005.

Hebel, S. (2005). "Governors and business leaders urge colleges to work more closely with public schools," The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wednesday, February 23, 2005.

Hutcheson, P. (1999). "Educating a globally productive citizenry: The role of higher education in the integration of learning and work. A monograph for college leaders," National Commission for Cooperative Education.

Jenkins, K. (June 2005). "Gender and civic engagement: Secondary analysis of survey data. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. Circle Working Paper 41.

Mundy, M. & Eyler, J. (2002). "Service-learning & retention: Promising possibilities, potential partnerships," Accessed:

National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) Institutional Report (2004). Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Center for Postsecondary Research.

Nunez, A.M. and S. Cuccaro-Alamin (1998). First-Generation students: Undergraduates whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education, NCES 98-082, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics.

Pascarella, E.T. and P.T. Terenzini (1979). Interaction effects in Spady's and Tinto's conceptual model of college dropout. Sociology of Education, 52: 197-210.

Pascarella, E.T. and P.T. Terenzini (1991). How college affects students. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Putnam, R. (2005). "Plenary keynote address: An agenda for social capitalists," National Conference on Citizenship, Annual Conference, September 19, 2005.

Reason, R.D. (2003). Student variables that predict retention: Recent research and new developments. NASPA Journal, 40(4): 172-191.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). UMBC: An Honors University in Maryland Strategic Framework for 2016. November l0, 2003.

Michele K. Wolff, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Shannon M. Tinney, University of Maryland, Baltimore County


[1] The question used in the NSSE (2004) to measure service-learning was, "In your experience at your institution during the current school year, about how often have you done each of the following: participated in a community-based project (e.g., service learning) as part of a regular course)? Students who responded "very often", "often", or "sometimes" were classified as "yes" (1) and those who responded "never" were classified as "no" (0).

[2] According to the Corporation for National & Community Service (2005), across all categories, women volunteer at a higher rate than men.

Wolff is Director of UMBC's Shriver Center and affiliate instructor in Sociology, and Tinney is a Research Analyst in UMBC's Office of Institutional Research.
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Author:Tinney, Shannon M.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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