Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

The Relationship between Service-Learning and Degree Completion

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

The Relationship between Service-Learning and Degree Completion

Article excerpt

Only about half of all students who enroll in colleges and universities in the United States earn a four-year degree at the institution where they begin their studies, and many postsecondary institutions are seeking ways to increase the graduation rates of their students. Both student characteristics and institutional factors influence a student's likelihood of graduating, so it is important for colleges and universities to determine which institutional practices have a significant impact on degree completion. In this longitudinal, ex post facto study, a cohort of 3,458 undergraduate students who matriculated in 2005 at a large, urban public research university in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States were followed for six years to explore the differences between students who took service-learning courses while enrolled (SL students) and those who did not take service-learning courses (non-SL students). Although SL students and non-SL students had similar pre-college academic characteristics, SL students were more successful while enrolled in college. They earned more credits, had a higher average college GPA, and they graduated at a significantly higher rate than did non-SL students, despite having greater financial need while enrolled. Discrete-time survival analysis showed that service-learning course completion during the third, fourth, and sixth years of enrollment was a significant predictor of graduation for students in this cohort who persisted until the third year. These findings demonstrate that the impact of service-learning on degree completion is substantial, even when traditional predictors for graduation are also considered.


Higher education degree completion rates in the United States are unacceptably low. The national average for finishing a bachelor's degree within six years of starting college has hovered around 50% for several decades (Nelson Laird, Chen, & Kuh, 2008; Tinto, 2003). At four-year public universities and colleges, the persistence to completion rate for students finishing at the same institution where they began is even lower at 45.5% (Tinto, 2012).

In global comparisons, the United States has steadily fallen behind other nations in college completion, ranking 15th among 29 countries compared in a recent study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (2008). Among 25- to 34-year-olds, the nation has fallen to 10th in the proportion of the population with an associate's degree or higher. This trend reflects the lack of significant improvement in the rates of college participation and completion in recent years, and points to a decline in educational capital among Americans (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education).

The economic benefits of earning a college degree are far-reaching. In 2008, the median income for Americans with a bachelor's degree working fulltime year-round was $21,900 higher than the median income for those with only a high school degree. Among Americans between the ages of 20 and 24, unemployment rates are 2.6 times higher for high school graduates when compared with college graduates (Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2010). Federal, state, and local governments also reap benefits from college graduates through increased tax revenues and lower spending on income support programs. For example, in 2008, less than 2% of individuals aged 25 and older in households with at least a bachelor's degree relied on the federal Food Stamp Program, while 8% of households with only high school graduates received these benefits. The difference in proportions is similar for households utilizing the National School Lunch Program (Baum et al.).

Colleges and universities across the U.S. are enrolling increasing numbers of historically underrepresented groups such as minority and first-generation students (Pike & Kuh, 2005), and degree completion rates for these groups lag behind national averages. …

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