Institutionalized Service Learning Promotes Engagement and Builds Social Integration

Velda Arnaud
Blue Mountain Community College, USA


Community colleges are challenged to retain more students through graduation. Research has shown that service learning engages students, and engaged students persist through graduation. This descriptive case study sought to determine how institutionalized service learning was structured, supported, and operated on one community college campus. Findings indicated that curricular and co-curricular service learning existed throughout the campus and that students were engaged in their service learning experiences and built connections with campus personnel and those in their communities. These results seem to indicate that a campus-wide approach to service learning might retain students, thus increasing graduation rates.


Many community college students arrive without the knowledge, skills, or guidance to be successful, and many students have work and family obligations in addition to their coursework. Complete College America (2011) identified academic remediation and outside obligations as two obstacles to degree completion. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2010), community college graduation rates (22%) are low compared to 4-year college and university rates (57%). President Obama has stated that there is a need for 5 million more community college graduates by 2020 (The White House, 2009, 2013). As community college leaders seek ways to retain students and increase their graduation rates, their campuses have also been impacted by decreased federal, state, and local funding. Resources are stretched.

While there are differences in the characteristics of the student populations at 4-year colleges and universities and the students at community colleges, available research on students at 4-year colleges has shown that students who become engaged with their learning remain in college and complete degrees (Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges, & Hayek, 2006; Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, Whitt, & Associates, 2010; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Student engagement has been defined as those learning activities that are supported by the college and that require students to contribute time and effort (National Survey of Student Engagement, NSSE, 2012). Kuh (2008) identified service learning as a high-impact practice that engaged students, built connections between students and other people, allowed for interaction with differing populations in the community, and allowed for meaningful feedback opportunities (pp. 24-27).

In NSSE’s (2012) recent report, high impact practices such as study abroad, research with faculty, and service learning were mentioned; however, only service learning is widely offered on community college campuses. The American Association of Community Colleges reported that 60-70% of community colleges have service learning on their campuses (Jeandron & Robinson, 2010, p. 4). Because service learning is widespread and a high-impact practice, service learning may be one solution to student attrition. In addition, for students to perceive that service learning has value, studies by Bringle and Hatcher (2000) and Furco (2002) determined that the college must support and fund service learning.

One way to support service learning would be through a campus-wide, or institutionalized, approach through providing funding, office space, and college personnel (Gray, 2000). With institutionalized service learning, faculty members could coordinate with service learning personnel to integrate service learning activities into their courses. More institutionalized co-curricular service learning opportunities would also attract student leaders. Such an institutionalized approach would provide more credibility to the service learning program and activities.

There are numerous research reports and articles about service learning activities at community colleges throughout the country; however, in a 2011 review of the literature, Taggert and Crisp (2011) found only 17 empirical studies specifically related to service learning at community colleges. This descriptive case study sought to close that research gap and answer the question of how service learning was structured, supported, and operated on one community college campus in the Pacific Northwest.

Institutionalized Service Learning

After visiting dozens of college campuses for a national study on expanding community service, Gray (2000) identified the need for colleges to have a campus-wide structure for service learning to be effective. Institutionalized service learning becomes “academic fabric,” or a central part of the college’s environment (Furco, 2002, p. 40). However, creating a campus-wide approach takes time because systems must be developed and integrated throughout the campus.

Service learning research has found that students participating in service learning activities developed academic, personal, interpersonal, and social skills and had greater persistence for course completion and retention (Conway, Amel, & Gerwien, 2009; Bringle, Hatcher, & Muthiah, 2010). Tinto’s (1975) persistence model demonstrated that integration into academic and social systems related directly to persistence. Service learning allows students to integrate into such academic and social systems and to build connections with faculty members, students, and members of the community. These connections also allow students to learn about and understand different people and cultures as was found in Keen and Hall’s (2009) longitudinal study of co-curricular service learning experiences of Bonner Scholars from 23 campuses.

College administrators may provide a solid foundation for service learning by providing funding, space, and staffing (Gray, 2000). Additionally, Furco (2002) found that collaboration between faculty and support personnel was important for institutionalization. Having a solid foundation and collaboration gives service learning permanence at the college and indicates a value to students, campus personnel, and the community. Institutionalized service would then become “routine, widespread, legitimate, expected, supported, permanent, and resilient,” rather than a marginalized practice (Kramer, 2000).

 Methodology of the Study

This qualitative case study sought to describe institutionalized community college service learning on one campus through document reviews, campus and online observations, interviews with service learning coordinators, an online student discussion forum, and member checking. The primary research question was, “How is institutionalized service learning structured, supported, and operated on a community college campus?” My role was an observer, I had no personal or professional connections to the campus, and I was the only person responsible for data collection and analysis.

Experienced service learning experts suggested that I focus on one community college in this study, and I confirmed that the college had an institutionalized service learning program and was convenient for me to visit.

Description of the Research Site

I used pseudonyms throughout the study to protect the identity of the site and participants. Northwest Community College (NWCC) was accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and provides 2-year transfer programs, professional/technical education, and basic skills instruction. The college is located in a metropolitan area and enrolled fewer than 20,000 each quarter. Academic instruction included about 500 part-time and 200 full-time faculty members.

NWCC had two official service learning programs: 1) the curricular Service-Learning Program (SLP) and 2) the co-curricular Northwest Leaders Program (NWLP). Both programs were within the career department of the student services division, and each program had coordinators and two work-study students. The part-time SLP coordinator was responsible for NWCC’s service learning activities, and SLP had responsibility for coordination of curricular service learning and communication of all service learning activities. NWLP had two volunteer coordinators (a faculty member and a full-time employee in the career department); however, the faculty member participated only in a weeklong spring break activity. Funding for SLP was through the general fund, and NWLP was funded through student fees.

Collection of the Data

Data collection began with the document review, and I collected, analyzed, and coded data from documents, observations, interviews, and online discussions in a spiraling technique, as suggested by Creswell (2009). Throughout the data analysis, I used Bazeley’s (2009) describing, comparing, and relating technique. Using these approaches in tandem kept me from being overwhelmed by data as I moved from document reviews to interviews, to observations, and finally to the online discussion forum.

I interviewed two service learning coordinators who had direct knowledge of the service learning programs and the campus. Student participants were chosen based on whether they were over 18 years of age and had been involved within the last year in service learning at the college.

The most difficult part of the study was finding student participants. The service learning coordinators identified 12 students who were willing to participate. Of those 12 students, 7 completed the online consent form, 6 enrolled in the secure discussion forum, 1 withdrew, and 1 did not contribute to the forum discussions. Four students participated in the semi-structured discussions. For the online discussion forum, students replied to the prompts, and there was some discussion between participants. Perhaps due to the small participant size, there were no discrepant opinions about service learning within the student group.

Research Study Findings Related to Institutionalized Service Learning

Before I began my study, I assumed that institutionalized service learning meant one structure for service learning throughout the campus because Gray (2000) emphasized that a campus-wide structure was the most effective. However, service learning on NWCC’s campus was much more organic with activities spread throughout the campus in differing formats. Previously at NWCC, there had been a full-time service learning director, and during that period, curricular and co-curricular service learning activities were coordinated within the same unit. However, with the ebb and flow of funding resources and program changes, NWCC’s service learning was separated into two official programs (SLP and NWLP) and many student club activities. While the number of disciplines offering curricular service learning decreased, as shown in Table 1, the number of service hours increased continually since the high point for faculty participation in 2009-2010.

Table 1

Annual Academic Service Learning Participation Data

  2007 to 2008 2008 to 2009 2009 to 2010b 2010 to 2011 2011 to 2012 2012 to 2013
Number of service learning facultya 25 27 37 34 26 30
Percent of full-time faculty 13% 14% 19% 17% 13% 15%
Number of disciplines 16 14 23 22 18 17
Number of students
(of ~20,000 population)
Total number of hours 5,451 8,200 9,758 9,758 11,510 13,218
Average hours per student 7.81 7.74 6.45 6.21 9.87 9.27

aFaculty members are not mandated to report the service learning hours performed by students.bFaculty cohort program ended at the beginning of the 2009-2010 academic year. Data provided by SLP manager as reported by faculty members.

NWCC made clear distinctions between their two official service learning programs: SLP for curricular, one-time service learning experiences, and NWLP for ongoing co-curricular activities. Service learning within student clubs was not included within the formal programs, and NWCC tracked only the curricular service learning reported to SLP. However, students in this study did not recognize those differences—when asked about their service learning experiences, students combined curricular, co-curricular, and student club activities.

For the students, service learning was about making a difference in their communities and helping others. These students reported building connections with their faculty members, service learning coordinators, other students, and members of the community. These students also reported that they became socially integrated with their campus and communities. For example, one of the students, Victoria, expressed how she found all of her projects to be rewarding:

In just those few hours that you are spending, whether it be reading a book to a child, helping a school host a community helping event, or weeding for your college, those few hours in the end make a huge difference.

Conversations with other volunteers in the community were important to the students. Rosanna stated, “I’ve especially liked volunteering with the local hospital, where most of the volunteers are retired and have their whole lives to talk about in conversations, and have advice to give based on their experiences.” Another student, Angelica, had a similar experience, and she stated, “The people we work with are always amazingly kind people.”

Students also mentioned making connections with the individuals they were serving in the community. These types of connections helped students understand and talk about difference, which was found in Keen and Hall’s (2009) longitudinal study of scholarship students performing extensive co-curricular service over 4 years. For example, while reflecting on a winter break activity to serve a Christmas meal for senior citizens, Rosanna recalled:

When we served luncheon to the seniors, they graciously allowed all the [service learning] volunteers to sit down and eat free lunch too! There were a lot of us, so I was surprised they were so willing to do that. That also allowed us some time to talk to each other, which I think is one of the greatest rewards in volunteering—relationships with fellow volunteers and coordinators.

Students mentioned the connections built with faculty members and the campus coordinators, and Victoria summarized those connections:

What really makes the service learning engaging are the people involved. The coordinators have to show enthusiasm for what they are doing and what they are working towards. The atmosphere has an effect too. If everyone [the coordinator, the service learning participants, the audience they are engaging] enjoys what they are doing then the event will go by a lot smoother.

The students’ service learning experiences helped them give back to their communities, allowed them to grow as individuals, and helped them better understand those they were serving. Victoria participated in one of the summer days of service, and she shared how the experience exceeded her expectations:

At the time, the weather was reaching into the 90s and this man wanted to prance about in a furry raccoon mascot costume with no air conditioning unit. I did not understand why he was so enthused until the end of the day. I did not expect to dance along a mascot to entertain children and help parents take photos. I did not expect I had to set up an overly complex tent while a semi-truck threatened to flatten me. I did not expect I had to help a lost child find his way back to his parents. But mostly I did not expect to meet such wonderful people. Many people quickly offered to help when tents were blown away, tables overturned, and papers flew into the street. I do not even mean the rangers or the volunteers when I say this. I mean the people who went to the event, relaxing and enjoying themselves, stopped and helped us out when the going got tough.

Recommendations for Action

The purpose of this study was not to assess student engagement; however, all of the students mentioned being engaged without being asked. Student participants expounded on the connections they built with campus personnel, students, other volunteers, and people in the community through their service learning activities. Research by Karp, Hughes, and O’Gara (2008) found that such types of social integration resulted in students persisting through graduation. These social interactions were also found to be important for persistence in Bringle, Hatcher, and Muthiah’s (2010) study with 11 Indiana colleges. Service learning activities at NWCC involved teamwork and collaboration, and most of the student participants in this study were involved with multiple service learning volunteer events.

Institutionalized service learning on NWCC’s campus is widespread; however, the college differentiates between types of service learning experiences and only tracks curricular service learning. Based on this study, my recommendations are:

  • Create a campus-wide definition of service learning that could be clearly communicated to everyone on and off campus. My suggestion would be to use the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse’s (2012) definition: “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”
  • Track all service learning hours that meet the college’s definition (as determined above) and track whether those hours are curricular or co-curricular. This would provide more validity for the co-curricular activities that are already happening on campus.

Implications for Social Change

This study contributes to social change by demonstrating how institutionalized service learning could create a more engaged student body. Students who are engaged with other people on campus have positive attitudes, learn better, and stay in college (Engstrom & Tinto, 2008; Karp, Hughes, & O’Gara, 2008; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Scrivener, Bloom, LeBlanc, Paxson, Rouse, & Sommo, 2008; Simonet, 2008; Tinto & Love, 1995; Zhao & Kuh, 2004). Thus, students engaged through service learning activities would be more likely to persist through graduation and help increase community college graduation rates to meet the 5 million more graduate challenge issued by President Obama (The White House, 2009, 2013).


As community colleges seek ways to engage students and retain students through graduation, they should place more emphasis on service learning. Service learning is already on 60-70% of community college campuses (Jeandron & Robinson, 2010, p. 4). As I found in this study, institutionalization does not mean high staffing costs, as I had assumed from Gray’s (2000) analysis about a campus-wide structure. Institutionalized is about the college having a consistent definition and structure. Service learning is a high impact practice that has been shown to engage students, and institutionalizing service learning will provide more credibility to the services performed by students on their campuses and in their communities. Campus leaders should expand their definitions of service learning to include both curricular and co-curricular activities and provide adequate support and funding towards those efforts.


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About the authors:

Velda Arnaud

Velda Arnaud teaches business and leadership at an Oregon community college and is engaged in campus activities. She received her Ph.D. in community college leadership from Walden University. Her scholarly interests are service learning and leadership. Velda has managed local and regional award winning honor society teams.   In 2013, Velda was the inaugural recipient of the Phi Theta Kappa Marshall Leadership award, and she conducted a three-state leadership tour.

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.