Is It Time to Re-Evaluate “What Counts” as Service-Learning?

By: Claire Mitchell, PhD - Blue Level Research Specialist

Teenage boy with back to camera, taking photos, wearing a red cap, and red shirt that reads "VOLUNTEER"
Photo by ray sangga kusuma on Unsplash

The Service-Learning (SL) movement has become a major presence in K-12 and higher education. SL is a pedagogical practice in education that combines elements of volunteerism with active student learning and reflection. It seeks to balance the needs of the community while also engaging students to learn and grow so that they become more compassionate, engaged, and responsible leaders. Good deeds that lead to good outcomes? No wonder SL and formal community service “hours” have become one of the standard co-curricular requirements for college admission or degree completion.


And the evidence is strong for the positive benefits of SL. A sizable body of research overwhelmingly shows that SL participation increases empathy, improves non-cognitive skills, and leads to greater civic participation among many other outcomes. And SL participation has been found to be a particularly powerful support structure for first-generation students from underprivileged communities. It has been linked to the development of a sense of “resilience,” “critical consciousness,” and “personal meaning” among these students. Further research has found that participation in SL programs can help minority students feel more included and at greater ease when facing feelings of exclusion and isolation in college.[1]


Despite the well-documented, widely accepted positive benefits of this active learning strategy that links student hands-on engagement with giving back via community service, SL as it has been institutionalized in higher education has become an exclusive standard. In its most common use as a requirement for admission to or graduation from higher education degree programs, SL has become a practice of the privileged. Indeed, low income, students of color, and/or first-generation college students can face very real barriers to formal volunteering or SL programs that count toward either postsecondary degree admission or program completion requirements. These include barriers in terms of lack of access to community service programs and exclusion based on narrowly defined standards for what qualifies as Service-Learning.


Young adults unloading boxes from a truck
Young adults unloading boxes from a truckPhoto by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Lack of Access to Service-Learning Opportunities

Understanding and acknowledging the first barrier that impedes many students from meeting formal SL college admission / program completion requirements requires that we shift our perception of SL. While yes, it truly does have countless positive benefits for students who are able to participate, SL remains an educational practice that can exclude many students. The educative element at its core, volunteering—defined most broadly as freely offering services and giving back without payment or reciprocal reward—is by nature a privilege. It requires time, resources, and forms of social and cultural capital that are not available and/or equitably offered to all students.


Not everyone can afford to spend their time working without financial compensation. Put simply, not everyone has time to give. Volunteering necessitates that an individual sacrifice both their time and resources in order to put the needs of others ahead of their own. Many students from underserved communities need to work a job to support themselves and/or their families while also going to school. And so many times, these students are tasked with supporting their basic needs so that they can continue to stay on their academic and career trajectories. Time outside of school and work for so many is a precious commodity.[2]


Another very real obstacle for many students to participate in formal SL programs is lack of exposure and access. It is important here to acknowledge that the issue is not that minority students don’t volunteer; in fact, it is well documented that students from underserved communities actually volunteer in their communities at a higher rate than their peers.[3] The issue, then, is that what counts toward more formal community service requirements—formal SL programs tied to school or higher education instruction that systematize and track a participant hours—are not always accessible to all students.


Many students are denied the cultural and social capital that would expose them to opportunities and/or provide them with necessary networks for them to participate in, such programs

While their more affluent (most often white) peers are signing up for summer programs to accumulate SL hours to elevate their college admission applications, many students of color are tasked with finding employment to make ends meet. In this way, SL can serve to reinforce dynamics of power and privilege.


Exclusion Based on Narrow Definitions of Service-Learning


Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate “what counts” as Service-Learning so that we increase inclusivity in this much touted practice. The solution to eliminating exclusion and expanding access is two fold.


Given that we know that volunteering can lead to important positive outcomes for those who participate, attempts should be made to remove barriers to participating. In essence, SL should be a less privileged endeavor and made into a more accessible pursuit. This could look like K-12 teachers incorporating it into their curriculum so that it becomes a more common (if not universal) part of the elementary and secondary student experience (in other words, Service-Learning as an opportunity for all students offered early and often).


Further, postsecondary institutions, including community colleges and four-year institutions could work to develop and implement SL outreach opportunities for younger students in low-income or underprivileged communities. Such outreach already exists in terms of remediation and developmental education as well as subject-specific programs that attempt to strengthen the pipeline of underrepresented students in certain fields. There exists, however, a dearth of outreach that provides opportunities for less privileged students to participate in Service-Learning.


Finally, perhaps it’s time to change, or rather broaden, our definition of SL. Work-based internships/apprenticeship models have been shown to have equally positive outcomes for individuals, while also allowing those individuals to support themselves financially. And not enough attention or value is placed on the work so many are doing in their own communities to help elevate their friends, families, and neighbors. This work is, in so many cases, unpaid and unprompted. It is the true definition of volunteerism, which forms the foundation for SL, and aside from counting hours, there should be alternative methods for qualifying these most sincere efforts to give back.


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[1] Espino, M.M. & Lee, J.J. (2011) Understanding resistance: Reflections on race and privilege through service-learning. Equity & Excellence in Education, 44(2),136–152


Yeh, T.L. (2010). Service-learning and persistence of low-income, first-generation college students: An exploratory study. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 16, 50–65.


[2] Karasik, R. J. (2005). Breaking the time barrier: Helping students ‘find the time’ to do intergenerational service-learning. Gerontology and Geriatrics Education, 25, 49–63


Hawkins, C. A., Smith, M. L., Hawkins, R. C., & Grant, D. (2005). The relationships among hours employed, perceived work interference, and grades as reported by undergraduate social work students. Journal of Social Work Education, 41, 13–27.


[3]Kuh, G.D. (2010). High-impact practices: Retrospective and prospective. In J. E. Brownell, & L. E. Swaner (2010), Five high-impact practices: Research on learning outcomes, completion and quality (pp. v-xiii). Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities.


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About the Author:

Claire Mitchell, PhD, Research Specialist, Blue Level


Claire has over 15 years of experience as a teacher, advisor, and researcher in K-12 and higher education. She has focused on creating safe, inclusive learning spaces and evaluating interventions that seek to prepare underprivileged students and adult learners for success along their career trajectories. She has worked on federally funded (NSF, NIH, IES) research studies, where she has partnered with faculty, policy makers, and practitioners across the country in STEM, education, and health-care fields to explore best practice in diversity and inclusion strategy and policy. She earned her PhD in higher education from the University of Virginia and has remained in Charlottesville, where she loves to take her two French bulldogs on long walks in the Blue Ridge Mountains.