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Civic Engagement and Community College Students: The Relevance of Learning Communities and Service Participation
Unformatted Document Text:  Civic Engagement and Community College Students: The Relevance of Learning Communities and Service Participation By Robbin Smith, Ph.D.Central Connecticut State UniversityFor the Midwest Political Science Association National MeetingChicago, ILApril 2-5, 2009 Introduction For a number of years now, social scientists have researched and written about the gradual (but persistent) erosion and potential collapse of American civil society. Notable public intellectuals such as Robert Nisbet, Robert Bellah, Jedediah Purdy, Paul Loeb, and others have theorized about the social causes and consequences of the decline of community participation. Most notably among these researchers, Robert Putnam documented the decreased stock of social capital and increased social disconnection evidenced in contemporary America in his seminal book, Bowling Alone (2000). Putnam concluded that Americans suffered from a “civic malaise” that was particularly acute among undergraduate college students (Putnam, 2000: 15). Since his work was first published, numerous other scholars have examined the legitimacy of that claim. Zukin et al. (2006:189) directly challenged Putnam’s findings. They argued that American youth demonstrate greater levels of involvement in charitable activities and higher levels of voluntarism than older Americans. Further research has uncovered a broad range of areas in which civic engagement among youths has been underestimated or neglected altogether. For example, academics noted the extent to which youth voter turn out increased in both the 2004 and 2006 elections (Kirby and Marcelo, 2006). In addition, the 2005 (Higher Education Research Institute Report (hereafter cited as HERI) found that, contrary to Putnam’s pessimistic view of student engagement, student involvement in service learning and volunteering had increased for the entering class of 2005. In fact, 61.5% of those students indicated that they had already engaged in such work. The HERI report also found that three-quarters of freshmen expected to be engaged in community service and volunteer work at some point in the future (Hurtado et al., 2007: 18-19). The larger National Survey of Student Engagement (hereafter cited as NSSE) of 2008 concluded that 40% of freshman and 60% of college seniors have engaged in community service or volunteer activities at some point prior to graduating from college (NSSE, 2008: 11). Other researchers have acknowledged Putnam’s results but have concluded that the outcome is not as dire as Putnam forecasted and suggested that it may be possible to cultivate a sense of civic engagement among specific populations, including college students. Colby et al. (2007: 286-287) concluded that the collegiate environment offered a powerful potential source for encouraging community engagement and inculcating students with a sense of civic

Authors: Smith, Robbin.
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Civic Engagement and Community College Students: The Relevance of 
Learning Communities and Service Participation
By Robbin Smith, Ph.D.
Central Connecticut State University
For the Midwest Political Science Association National Meeting
Chicago, IL
April 2-5, 2009
For a number of years now, social scientists have researched and written about the 
gradual (but persistent) erosion and potential collapse of American civil society.  Notable 
public intellectuals such as Robert Nisbet, Robert Bellah, Jedediah Purdy, Paul Loeb, and 
others have theorized about the social causes and consequences of the decline of community 
participation.  Most notably among these researchers, Robert Putnam documented the 
decreased stock of social capital and increased social disconnection evidenced in contemporary 
America in his seminal book, Bowling Alone (2000). Putnam concluded that Americans 
suffered from a “civic malaise” that was particularly acute among undergraduate college 
students (Putnam, 2000: 15).
Since his work was first published, numerous other scholars have examined the 
legitimacy of that claim.  Zukin et al. (2006:189) directly challenged Putnam’s findings.  They 
argued that American youth demonstrate greater levels of involvement in charitable activities 
and higher levels of voluntarism than older Americans. Further research has uncovered a broad 
range of areas in which civic engagement among youths has been underestimated or neglected 
altogether. For example, academics noted the extent to which youth voter turn out increased in 
both the 2004 and 2006 elections (Kirby and Marcelo, 2006).  In addition, the 2005 (Higher 
Education Research Institute Report (hereafter cited as HERI) found that, contrary to Putnam’s 
pessimistic view of student engagement, student involvement in service learning and 
volunteering had increased for the entering class of 2005.  In fact, 61.5% of those students 
indicated that they had already engaged in such work. The HERI report also found that three-
quarters of freshmen expected to be engaged in community service and volunteer work at some 
point in the future (Hurtado et al., 2007: 18-19).  The larger National Survey of Student 
Engagement (hereafter cited as NSSE) of 2008 concluded that 40% of freshman and 60% of 
college seniors have engaged in community service or volunteer activities at some point prior 
to graduating from college (NSSE, 2008: 11).
Other researchers have acknowledged Putnam’s results but have concluded that the 
outcome is not as dire as Putnam forecasted and suggested that it may be possible to cultivate a 
sense of civic engagement among specific populations, including college students.  Colby et al. 
(2007: 286-287) concluded that the collegiate environment offered a powerful potential source 
for encouraging community engagement and inculcating students with a sense of civic 

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