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Running head: SERVICE LEARNING 1

Service Learning’s Role in the Success of

Historically Underserved Student Populations

Lori Korth

Northern Illinois University



Institutions of higher education have come under increasing scrutiny, with more attention

being paid to widening access and increasing persistence and graduation rates. There has been a

push for institutions throughout the United States to increase access to higher education for

historically underserved students. Getting underserved students into college has been the main

focus, with the majority of the burden being put on the student to use the resources provided to

them to persist and attain a degree. When students that belong to a historically underserved

population do not succeed for whatever reason, the students are often the ones blamed. It is often

said that they never should have attended college, they were not academically prepared to

succeed, or that they did not try hard enough. The failure of the university to properly support

populations historically underserved is rarely identified as a common reason.

As the focus institutions place on programs that increase retention and graduation rates

expand, studies have found that “participating in service during the undergraduate years

substantially enhances the student’s academic development, life skill development, and sense of

civic responsibility” (Astin & Sax, 1998, p. 251). Before an institution is willing to expand

service programs it needs to know how such programs affect the educational and personal

development of their students.

Despite increased attention on the benefits of service learning, it has not been widely

adopted at most institutions. A lack of institutional commitment to service learning, including

limited support from administration, low faculty participation, and insufficient funding, are all

considered as key components inhibiting wide spread service learning integration (Abes,

Jackson, & Jones, 2002). Studies have shown that students who leave college before graduating

are less engaged than students who persist to graduation (Kuh et al., 2008). Historically

underserved students are also more likely to leave before making it to graduation than their

traditional student peers. Institutions need to make an intentional effort to involve these

populations in educationally engaging experiences to increase their academic, personal, and

social development and their known low persistence and graduation rates.

Review of Literature

Service Learning

Up until the last few years, research focused on service learning’s potential to be used as

an engaged learning strategy to increase student success (Gallini, & Moely, 2003; Simonet,

2008; Bringle, Hatcher, & Muthiah, 2010). Aspects of service learning pedagogy, including its

student centeredness, collaborative nature, and promotion of critical thinking, help make service

learning courses great educational experiences in ways non-service learning courses often

struggle (Boyle-Baise & Langford, 2004). Along the same lines, another focus in the research of

service learning centers on its ability to be used as a first-year retention tool due to consistent

student reports of better educational experiences, comprising of “extent of peer interaction,

extent of faculty interaction, course satisfaction, perceived learning, degree of active learning,

and personal relevance” (Bringle et al., 2010, p. 45). The stated higher degree of quality and

engagement of service learning courses make students want to return to the same institution the

next year.

Current research is focusing more on the civic engagement aspect of service learning

pedagogy and the importance to be intentional with its implementation. Bringle & Hatcher

(2009) noted the role reflection plays in connecting students’ participation in service and the

targeted educational outcomes and the significance of including civic education in a course’s

educational objectives. Bringle & Hatcher (2009) state that in service learning courses “students

are not only “serving to learn,” which occurs in other forms of curricular engagement and

applied learning such as clinical, fieldwork, internship, and practicum, but also “learning to

serve,” the unique civic dimension of the pedagogy” (p. 38).

Underserved Students and Student Engagement

Student engagement is positively related to academic outcomes and persistence, “while

exposure to effective educational practices generally benefits all students, the effects are even

greater for lower ability students and students of color compared with White students” (Kuh et

al., 2008, p. 555). As would be expected, a student’s first-year grades and persistence are

effected by the student’s pre-college characteristics, such as academic achievement and ACT or

SAT scores (Kuh et al., 2008). However, these effects diminish considerably once college

experiences are taking into account. The more experiences students are able to get engaged in

with their campus and community they are more likely to have a meaningful impact on their

academic success and satisfaction with their current institution.


According to Vogelgesang and Astin (2000), 29.9 percent of students participate in

course-based community service with an additional 46.5 percent of students participating in

some other form of community service, resulting in over 75 percent of the student body

participating in some form of service. While research indicates positive outcomes from

participating in general community service, participating in course related service learning has

positive effects that go well beyond what general community service can offer. One

characteristic of service learning, if it is being instituted correctly, is providing students “with

opportunities to analyze social problems at the systemic level” (Einfeld & Collins, 2008, p. 107).

This will allow students to develop a commitment to social justice, as without such opportunities

students’ commitment to service usually “takes the form of charity, which can reinforce positions

of privilege and dependence” (Einfeld & Collins, 2008, p. 107).

Every student enters service experiences with a different conceptual framework. Much of

both White and Black students’ previous service experience constituted a charity paradigm

(Einfeld & Collins, 2008). At the outset of service learning courses, a majority of White

respondents hold deficit views, which are beliefs that individuals in poverty are at fault for their

own situation (Boyle-Baise & Langford, 2004). Individuals with a deficit view are rarely able to

see larger systematic contexts contributing to inequality. Some individuals are able to work

towards holding activist views, where they “perceive communities in terms of their strengths and

weaknesses, locate communities in a societal framework, and commit to activism” (Boyle-Baise

& Langford, 2004, p. 56). While individuals of color often hold activist views, it is uncommon

for White individuals. According to Einfeld and Collins (2008), service learning’s social justice

paradigm produces experiences that “should equip students with the knowledge and skill to

move beyond acts of charity and to address the root causes of systemic social inequality” (p.96),

however, not everyone is able to develop in this manner. Even though most of their previous

service experience was also of the charity paradigm, “participants who had previously

experienced inequality generally had a better understanding of how inequality impacts

individuals on a day-to-day basis than those who had not” (Einfeld & Collins, 2008, p. 103),

which allowed them to develop farther along the activist paradigm and make more connections

between the experiential and academic aspects of the course.

Historically underserved populations are considered students at risk for dropping out and

achieving low academic marks. However, these students are often very resourceful and able

students that are entering college at a disadvantage from their peers. It is unacceptable for

institutions to continue to allow for this gap in degree attainment when studies have shown that

an increase in educationally engaging activities would benefit at-risk populations at a higher rate

than traditional populations, therefore helping to close the gap. Simply offering programs is not

enough, as it cannot guarantee the programs will reach the intended populations or have the

intended effects on student success. Institutions need to be more intentional with how they

implement high-impact practices, making sure they are targeting practices that will reach those it

will help the most and those who need it the most.

Multiple studies have stated that engaging in service does not just benefit the individual

students participating in the service, but there is also a considerable benefit to higher education

institutions encouraging their students to participate in service. (Bringle et al., 2010). Service

learning courses are known to contain characteristics that promote retention and student success.

The number of minorities and underserved students applying to college is increasing, but they

still attend and graduate at lower rates than their traditional student peers. Research has shown

that high impact practices such as service learning have a larger impact on historically

underserved populations, including minorities and those who enter college academically

unprepared (Kuh et al., 2008). According to Gardner (2002), “service-learning is a “manageable

variable” and “thus, by intentional leveraging of this intervention, we may be able to off-set the

disadvantage some of our students bring with them to college”’(as cited in Bringle et al., 2010, p.

47). Institutions of higher education have the research that shows underserved populations not

only benefit from engaging practices such as service learning pedagogy, but that they benefit at a

higher level that other students. Institutions have the ability to implement policy and programs

that can help offset the disadvantages these students enter with. Focusing on retaining

populations that have historically dropped out at higher rates will not only help the students, but

will help the institutions in the short and long run. Recruiting and retaining one student is more

financially beneficial than recruiting four students and losing three of them after the first year.

Being intentional with the effort and funds the institution has to retain the students it has rather

than spend the effort and money on constantly recruiting more new students to replace the ones

that do not persist is more ethical, brings more life and happiness to the students, faculty, and

staff that work there, and is more financially sound.

Promising Practices

Institutional Focus

Even though service learning is garnering increased attention for its benefits, it is still not

being thoroughly integrated into college curriculums largely due to little institutional

commitment, administrative support, faculty involvement, and funding. Higher education is

increasingly quantitatively data driven, but institutions need to remember that qualitative data

and the voices of the students matter when making decisions about policy and programs. Each

institution has unique characteristics and needs to address how specific programs would respond

to a specified need on their campus. Specifically, institutions that serve large numbers of

historically underserved students should address how institutionalizing service learning

pedagogy would give their students a better chance at success. Bringle, Hatcher, Hamilton, and

Young (2001) state:

When service-learning is institutionalized, then it is part of the academic culture of the

institution, aligns with the mission, becomes an enduring aspect of the curriculum that is

supported by more than a few faculty, improves other forms of pedagogy, leads to other

forms of civic scholarship, influences faculty roles and rewards, is part of the experience

of most students, and has widespread support, understanding, and involvement of


students, faculty, administration, and the community. (as cited in Bringle & Hatcher,

2009, 39)

A centralized office should be developed that can serve as the institutions resources on service

learning. This office could help connect community partners with faculty, assist faculty with the

development of a new service learning curriculum, provide funding, and help with logistical

issues. Having a centralized office that promotes and supports service learning will help to build

a culture of service learning throughout the campus if it is given the proper support and funding.

Faculty Focus

Getting substantial faculty support is one of the largest challenges to institutionalizing

service learning. Faculty value service learning’s ability to increase student learning outcomes

and are often open to the idea of using service learning pedagogy, but need to see concrete

evidence that supports the increase in student success (Abes et al., 2002). Most of the reasons

given by faculty for not integrating service learning into their curriculum have to do with not

having the time to learn how to effectively use service learning, the lack of funding to help

design new curriculum, and logistical difficulties that come with implementing a service learning

curriculum (Abes et al., 2002). To combat these deterrents and encourage faculty to implement

service learning pedagogy, institutions need to begin with actively recruiting faculty to use this

pedagogy. Involvement of students and community partners are important, as well as fellow

faculty who already use service learning in their classrooms. Institutions need to identify and

promote the faculty who use service learning and give them opportunities to promote service

learning and the scholarship associated with service learning. Institutions need to provide

training in how to effectively use service learning and support in helping to create a service

learning curriculum. Additionally, institutions need to provide funding and/or offer release time

for the faculty to use to create the new curriculum.

Student Focus

Higher education institutions need to increase efforts to incorporate community service

into the curriculum, allowing all students have access to the benefits engaging in service

provides, not just those who have the freedom or ability to do so in co-curriculars. For courses

that are not service learning courses, opportunities to engage in service should be provided as an

add-on to the course. An example is allowing additional credit for the course for completing a

number of service hours along with a project that relates the service completed to the educational

content of the course.

Many universities today have first-year seminars or some type of class either offered or

required for incoming first-year students. These courses would be prime opportunities where

institutions can incorporate service learning and have a large impact on persistence and success

of students not only in their first year but also throughout their undergraduate experience and

beyond. The content and structure of each first-year course varies from institution to institution,

but many students often do not see the benefits of the course and how it may have affected their

development. Adding a service learning component will get students more engaged in their

learning, their campus, their community, and increase their perceptions about what they have

learned and how they have developed.

Service learning should be incorporated across departments and course levels so that

students can continue to benefit from the positive and engaging outcomes found in service

learning courses. However, institutions need to be intentional in making sure courses that

historically underserved populations need will be targeted for incorporation of service learning

and the additional support faculty require to do so. One example is targeting introductory and

remedial education courses offered that some students are required to take before they can start

taking university credits, as they were admitted academically unprepared for college level work.


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Boyle-Baise, M. & Langford, J. (2004). There are children here: Service learning for social

justice. Equity & Excellence in Education, 37(1), 55-66. DOI:


Bringle, R. G., & Hatcher, J. A. (2009). Innovative practices in service learning and curricular

engagement. New Directions for Higher Education, (147), 37-46. DOI: 10.1002/he

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