Article focused on civic engagement and residence life published in Educational Researcher

Given that tomorrow is Election Day, I’m sure many of us are thinking about what it means to be civically engaged. Well, I’d like to add to that conversation. I’m very excited to announce that a paper I wrote on the topic of civic engagement on college campuses with Brent Evans from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and Courtney Lennartz from the University of Maryland has finally gone live online at Educational Researcher. The paper shows that residential colleges have greater civic engagement outcomes than commuter campuses. That’s a problem because around 75 percent of all college students are commuters. If all colleges are supposed to be creating civic-minded leaders, we need to figure out what is going on at residential colleges and export those practices to commuter colleges. You can find the paper here and in the Research section of my website.

It took 1,750 days from origination to publication. That’s a long time.

The paper, which (thanks to yours truly) has the overly dramatic title “Cracks in the Bedrock of American Democracy,” examines the differences in civic engagement in institutional mission statements, infrastructures, opportunity, and outcomes using two descriptive methods.

First we use t-tests to examine the differences in various measures of civic engagement between public and private institutions, research institutions and liberal arts colleges, and residential schools and commuter campuses.  Our purposive sample for that analysis comes from the research-intensive, elite Association of American Universities (AAU), the Annapolis Group (a group of top-tier liberal arts colleges) and US News and World Report’s list of top commuter campuses (link is from this year, but we used 2012-13 data). We chose this sample because the institutions in that group are exemplars of research universities, liberal arts colleges, public institutions, private institutions, commuter colleges, and residential campuses. Our data come from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), campus websites, and Robert Kelchen’s Washington Monthly college rankings (again, link from this year, but we used 2012-2013 data).

Second, because the T-Test sample is in no way, shape, or form representative of four-year colleges and universities, we also examine a different sample of 1,170 public and private four-year colleges using OLS regression. Our model that uses institutional characteristics to predict civic engagement outcomes, including number community service hours, Peace Corps volunteers, and ROTC enrollees.

Because of their public-oriented mission, we expected public institutions to be more civically engaged than private colleges; that wasn’t exactly the case. Publics mentioned civics in their missions more often, but privates more often built offices dedicated to civic engagement.

Liberal arts colleges tout themselves as bastions for civic engagement. therefore, we thought we’d see more going on at SLACs than the research institutions. No dice! We found no major differences on most of our measures and mixed results on outcomes.

Lastly, we expected residential colleges to show more evidence of civic engagement than commuter colleges… and that is exactly what we found. Residential colleges lapped commuter campuses in almost every measure. It wasn’t close.

But hey, this was a purposive sample. What if that last finding is only because we are comparing Harvard and Haverford to Houston-Downtown? (That’s right, the University of Houston has more than one campus). That’s why we did the regression analysis! The models show that residential college status is a big predictor of civic engagement outcomes – even when controlling for things like enrollment size, selectivity, and institutional resource level! For example, residential status is a major predictor of ROTC enrollees!

So why should we care about this? College students more often go to places like Houghton than Harvard. According to Complete College America, around 3/4 of students commute to college. This paper suggests they may get fewer civic engagement opportunities – and that’s a problem. We think there are two ways to solve that problem:

  1. make everyone a residential student, or
  2. bring the hallmarks of civic engagement in a residential setting to commuter campuses as much as practicable.

Option 1 is impossible. Option 2 is hard, but not impossible. The problem with Option 2 is that we really don’t know what it is about residential education that is linked to civic engagement. In the paper, we identified a link between civic engagement and residential education, but our analytic strategy does not allow for causal claims. We need more research as to why that link exists – especially if we plan to increase civic engagement at commuter campuses.

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