Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

The Effect of Community Service Learning on Undergraduate Persistence in Three Institutional Contexts

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

The Effect of Community Service Learning on Undergraduate Persistence in Three Institutional Contexts

Article excerpt

This study explores the role of community service learning (CSL) in promoting undergraduate persistence relative to other experiences students have in college, their entering characteristics, and institutional features. By following the 2009 freshmen cohort at three Midwestern universities over three years, this study finds that students 'experiences while in college (CSL, full-time enrollment, and GPA) have a stronger effect on the likelihood of reenrollment than students 'entering characteristics (age, gender, and race). Our separate analyses for each institution allow us to consider how the differences between the three universities (student body composition, retention rate, CSL program) might lead CSL courses to play a particularly critical role in student persistence in certain types of universities.


As colleges and universities work to increase the percentage of their student populations that complete degrees, some types of institutions face greater obstacles than others. In general, colleges where most students live on campus and enroll full-time achieve higher retention rates than do colleges where most students live and work off-campus and attend part-time. Students at private universities, especially those that are more selective, are more likely to complete their degree than students at public universities (Astin & Oseguera, 2012). Such differences are mostly beyond the control of university administrators and faculty; however, active learning methods that may promote student engagement and reinforce identification with the university--such as community service learning (CSL)--might help public commuter universities increase their retention rates (Kuh, 2012).

This study draws upon the design of Astin and Oseguera's (2012) ambitious analysis of 262 colleges and universities to provide information for those seeking to predict and promote the retention of students. The large number of variables in that analysis included (a) pre college characteristics; (b) environmental "contingencies" of attendance; and (c) characteristics of the institution attended. In this study, we compare and follow the freshmen cohorts of three Midwestern universities for three years to determine whether enrollment in CSL promotes student persistence in some types of institutions compared to others, and also whether this impact differs in accordance with students' characteristics at college entry and their different experiences in college.

Our theoretical framework for this research is Tinto's theory (1993) which identifies four categories of predictors of persistence: academic integration, social integration, financial pressures, and psychological differences. Social integration is particularly important at four-year universities and colleges with large percentages of full-time students living on campus and enjoying a rich campus life. In contrast, academic integration is more critical to the success of individuals enrolled in institutions with large percentages of part-time students who live and work off campus (Braxton, Hirschy, & McClendon, 2004). Because of external pressures on such students there is a tendency to come to campus for class and then rush to meet other responsibilities, leaving little opportunity for building a sense of community on campus.

Our supposition is that students' engagement in CSL increases both academic and social integration, leading to greater commitment to the institution, and more likely completion of their degree (Braxton et al., 2004; Tinto, 2012). Recent studies explored whether "active learning" methods such as CSL enhance the engagement of all students in their courses (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, Whitt, & Associates, 2010) and whether such engagement increases their retention, with encouraging indications that it may (Bringle, Hatcher, & Muthiah, 2010; Lockeman & Peleo, 2013). This study considers whether the effect of CSL is particularly critical in institutions with higher proportions of commuter, part-time students for whom academic integration promotes persistence. …

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