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IU Research Looks at Student Engagement from 'Supply Side'

Students Conduct Homeless Count Surveys at Wheeler Lighthouse Center.
Students Conduct Homeless Count Surveys at Wheeler Lighthouse Center. View print-quality image

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December 15, 2011

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It's well documented that college students receive benefits from taking part in service-learning, internships and community service. But what about the community organizations that make those opportunities possible?

A five-year project by researchers at Indiana University finds that the "host agencies" generally believe there is significant value to having students work with their groups. However, some of the organizations lack the staff, resources and procedures to make the best use of students. And many would welcome being more involved in planning and designing the opportunities.

The project, "Service-Learning From the 'Supply Side': Community Capacity to Engage Students," has been carried out by Beth Gazley, associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington; Laura Littlepage, clinical lecturer in SPEA at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis; and Teresa Bennett, director of the IUPUI Solution Center.

The researchers identified nonprofit organizations in Indianapolis and Bloomington, Ind., and surveyed their staff members about the organizations' use of students as interns, volunteers and participants in class-based service-learning projects. While the results are specific to those cities, the general findings should be applicable to other large cities and college towns.

Gazley said one striking finding was the prevalence of student engagement. Two-thirds of organizations said they involved college students, and students came from a range of institutions and programs.

In Bloomington, 95 percent involved IU Bloomington students and almost half involved students from Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Indianapolis organizations reported involvement by students from IUPUI, Butler University, the University of Indianapolis and others. The groups were most likely to report involvement by students in public affairs (26 percent), liberal arts (24 percent), business (22 percent), and medical and education fields (each 18 percent).

One of the most common benefits of involving students -- cited by more than two-thirds of nonprofit respondents -- is increasing agency visibility in the community and on campuses.

Most said they had the capacity to engage even more students. However, organizations with paid volunteer coordinators were three times as likely to involve students as those without volunteer coordinators. And agencies were more likely to use volunteer management practices, such as record-keeping, orientation and recognition, with interns than with volunteers or service-learners.

Another area that could use improvement, agency officials said, is coordination with campus officials and instructors in evaluating and assessing student-involvement projects. Nearly half said they had never attended a class presentation on the results of a class project or been asked to visit the class

"We weren't seeing as strong a connection between the agencies and what's happening in the classroom as we might have hoped for," Gazley said.

For nonprofit agencies, the researchers recommend initiating internal discussions of their rationale and strategies for engaging students, as well as conversations with faculty and campus administrators about the goals for students. Campus planners and policy makers, they say, need to pay attention to the staffing capacity of community agencies as they consider expanding student engagement programs. And faculty need to contact nonprofits directly before they send students into communities.

The project has produced several journal articles, chapters in books of research on nonprofit management and higher education, conference papers and presentations to representatives of the nonprofit sector. Funding came from the Solution Center at IUPUI, the IUPUI Center for Service and Learning, the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy at IUPUI and the Indiana Campus Compact.

To receive a copy of the executive summary of the research or to speak with Gazley, Littlepage or Bennett, contact Steve Hinnefeld, IU Communications, at 812-856-3488 or slhinnef@iu.edu.