Excellence Socially Applied

Civic Engagement and Student Success

Civic Engagement as a Strategy to Improve Retention and Success

Institutions of higher education are committed to retaining and graduating their students. Preparing students for productive and fulfilling lives is, after all, the business of higher ed. Civic engagement is necessary in helping higher education be successful, and the evidence points to the ways in which this is so. Put simply, campuses should strongly consider acting on the best practices in civic engagement in order to:

  • Increase retention rates
  • Increases graduation rates
  • Improve GPA scores
  • Graduate engaged citizens


The evidence is convincing. In 2010, Campus Compact released “A Promising Connection”  which laid out the research-based connections and causal relationships between civic engagement and student success. It opens in its executive summary with:

College students who participate in civic engagement learning activities not only earn higher grade point averages but also have higher retention rates and are more likely to complete their college degree. They also demonstrate improved academic content knowledge, critical thinking skills, written and verbal communication, and leadership skills. Moreover, these students show increased interest in becoming personally and professionally involved in future community enhancement projects.


A broad array of research has shown a positive relationship between high quality civic engagement initiatives and student success across education levels and sectors (see Resources below).  It is simply inaccurate to take the position that those who are engaged at college are likely to be engaged and succeed regardless of institutional culture. College is a transformative experience, filled with new pressures, new friends, new role models. At college, students can connect with others as they strive to learn about and reflect upon contextual situations, disparities, and injustices facing society that, with the right supportive environment, compel them to get involved and stay involved. This underlying fact explains a lot of why any correlational data exists between civic and academic engagement.


Other research shows more causal relationships between student civic engagement and increased rates of retention.

  • Campus Compact’s M3C Program, combining direct service in a community based program and peer mentoring for 600 students at 50 different campuses, shows improved rates of retention and graduation among participants who, in this case, are first generation and low income college students.
  • Drew University’s Civic Scholars offers four years of comprehensive developmental civic learning for its selected students. Yield of civic scholar applicants admitted to the program is 19%-29% greater than that of the overall undergraduate admitted student pool. Also, for the past two years, 1st to 2nd year retention of civic scholars has exceeded that of overall student body by 12%.
  • The Bonner Foundation runs a nationwide Bonner Scholars program – “developmental model that attempts to identify, develop, and integrate service passions, career interests, and academic pursuits. Because the Bonner Program is a multi-year commitment, students are challenged and supported to grow and develop in their service work”. Not only are Bonner cohorts retained at higher rates, but demonstrate lasting commitments to public work as alumni.



Much of the most persuasive arguments about the value of civic engagement as a strategy to increase retention and graduation rely heavily on research on small cohort of students, and it is a fact that some do indeed recruit based on the self-selection of students that are above average academically. These efforts must now be taken to scale as a commitment to inclusive opportunity.

The best practices for student civic engagement
that promote improved rates of retention and graduation are adapted from several sources listed in the resources below.

  • Offer scholarships tied to student work in their communities to make college life and community work more accessible and inclusive: M3C students receive AmeriCorps tuition scholarships in return for 300 hours direct service, usually an average of $2,000 per annum; Drew University offers a $5,000 scholarship per year for 4 years to its Civic Scholars; Bonner scholars receive significant funding for 4 years from the Bonner Foundation and Americorps in return for their service activities
  • Prioritize sustained engagement and communication with community partners to foster relationships, understanding of the issues, increased competence, and a sense of commitment
  • Use a cohort model where possible, as with learning communities to encourage shared responsibility and accountability to others
  • Tie civic engagement to academic learning through a variety of measures such as academic service learning, first year seminars, internships, and capstone projects
  • Use peer mentors where possible to instill belief in one’s ability to make a difference, but also to be held accountable)
  • Prioritize a developmental sequence to student civic learning across disciplines to build from exposure to issues to more advanced, pre-professional experiences


This approach requires a shared commitment to a culture of engagement on campus, but that is not enough. If we work together, cracks won’t become chasms, and all students can feel confident that effort will be rewarded.

The next big challenge is to take this work to scale.

New Jersey Campus Compact will work with our member colleges and universities to bring these opportunities for success to new levels, creating persistence pathways for all those seeking a better life through a college education.



  • Astin, A.W., Vogelgesang, L.J., et al. (2006). Understanding the effects of service-learning: A study of students and faculty. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
  • Bonner Foundation. Student development and leadership. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from
  • http://bonnernetwork.pbworks.com/w/page/13113175/Student%20Development%20and%20Leadership
  • Bridgeland, J.M., Dilulio, J.J., & Morison, K.B. (2006). The silent epidemic report. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises.
  • Drew University. Koritz, A. (2013) Conversation regarding Civic Scholars.
  • Keen, C., and Hall, K. (2008). Post-Graduation service and civic outcomes for high financial need students of a multi-campus, co-curricular service learning college program. Journal of College and Character, 10(2), 1-15.
  • Koritz. A. (2014). Email communication regarding Drew University Civic Scholars.
  • Meyer, S. (2003, November). The impact of service-learning on academic outcomes: A statewidestudy of Michigan Learn and Serve grantees. Paper presented at the Third Annual International Conference on Service-Learning Research, Salt Lake City, UT.
  • Prentice, M., & Robinson, G. (2010). Improving student learning outcomes with servicelearning. Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges.
  • Wisconsin Campus Compact. (2010). The Midwest Campus Compact citizen-scholar (M3C) fellows program. Retrieved August 17, 2010, from https://www.snc.edu/lse/docs/m3coverviewmay.pdf

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