Research Survey: Universities Highly Intentional About Community Engagement - Higher Education
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Research Survey: Universities Highly Intentional About Community Engagement



A survey of 100 urban universities across America revealed that the overwhelming majority offer community-engaged coursework and have centralized offices dedicated to partnerships with their communities.

According to research by Thriving Cities Lab at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, 90 percent of schools sampled offer community-engaged coursework for students and 95 percent have central offices that work intentionally on community collaborations.

Dr. Josh Yates

Additionally, 69 percent had dedicated funding for faculty and student community-based research while the importance of community service was articulated by 68 percent of the institutions’ presidents, 74 percent of the institutions’ mission statements and 95 percent of their strategic plans.

“This is a long-term movement that has been trending in this direction and evolving as a field of practice,” said the project’s lead researcher and report co-author, Dr. Josh Yates. “Over the past three decades, urban university-community partnerships have moved from dispersed and provisional ad hoc relationships to intentional and systematic institutional commitments. It’s not just a good thing, it’s a vital thing.”

The study comes at a time when institutions of higher education are facing heightened public scrutiny and some skepticism about the value of a college degree amidst high student loan debt and scandals around admissions practices and other issues.

“Given the rise of public concern over inequality and of public cynicism about public institutions, the degree to which we see universities actively institutionalizing a commitment to community partnership across their executive, curricular, and research functions is encouraging,” said Yates. “It’s a story that needs to be told and that the public needs to hear.”

Michaela Accardi, a former research program officer at Thriving Cities Group – a nonprofit partner of the lab – co-authored the report, and a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation supported the field guide.

There have been some case studies about partnerships between institutions of higher education and their communities, Yates noted, but this study may be the first attempt at a field scan and establishing a baseline.

A workbook section was written into the report that partnering schools and communities can use as a tool to evaluate their efforts, compare themselves to peers and consider next best steps for their own collaborations, he said.

“This is a fairly new field of inquiry and endeavor,” said Yates. “This is an essential turn in how we understand the public value of institutions of higher education in America. I’m studying it because I want to support it, and I want it to grow and mature.”

Yates said he hoped the results of the field scan will help schools assess and improve their efforts to serve and strengthen their local communities. Included in the report, “Field Guide for Urban University-Community Partnerships,” are profiles of “frontier” collaborations at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and eight other schools.

“It’s absolutely the case that lots of schools are trying to prove their value proposition to an increasingly skeptical public,” said Yates. “Some schools are thinking about this as a survival strategy, but this doesn’t mean they’re doing this cynically. This is a powerful way to show a school’s value, so there are pragmatic reasons.”

The study contained some findings that surprised Yates.

One was “the level across the board of intentional institutionalization of this work,” he said. Communities and institutions of higher education have been partnering for many years, but intentionality and expanse across the entire educational institution are remarkable, he said.

Another was the “degree of uniformity” in terms of packaging collaborations in practical, sensible ways rather than an “a la carte” approach, said Yates.

Yates was careful to point out that the study explored college-community partnership practices, but did not comment on the quality of those collaborations.

There’s not yet a commonly accepted standard to measure program quality or effectiveness, he said, “but this is precisely why we felt this field guide was so important. Without data like the findings in our survey, it has been hard for urban universities to assess their own community partnerships relative to those of their fellow institutions and learn about potential opportunities to further strengthen and serve their communities.”

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) has been supporting the kind of collaborations the study explored.

One objective of the APLU and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) is to support initiatives aimed at community transformation through partnerships. To that end, USU awards some of its Collaborative Opportunity Grants to schools that seek to advance student success, degree completion and community transformation by partnering with local governments, school districts and other external organizations.

“We’re seeing an intentional movement among public urban-serving universities toward deeply engaging and partnering within their greater community to better support and directly address barriers in the student experience,” said Shannon Looney, deputy director of urban initiatives at APLU. “So many barriers to success originate or are influenced by factors outside the university, and addressing those barriers requires deep partnership with other community stakeholders.”

For example, many of APLU’s urban-serving members are strengthening relationships within the K-16 system in efforts to improve academic readiness, such as co-convening faculty and teachers to align curriculum and pedagogy and redefining clear pathways from the beginning of high school through college to a career with support from local community colleges and employers, said Looney.

“We even see exciting and promising models with respect to partnering with more nontraditional organizations, such as food banks, to reduce food insecurity both on campus and in the local area,” she added. “The intentionality behind these partnerships is clear — by formalizing such community partnerships, urban-serving universities are seen as a visible source of support, stability and resilience to manage and reduce common academic barriers and chronic non-academic stressors that plague students and the community.”

LaMont Jones can be reached at ljones@diverseeducation.com. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLaMontJones

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