Why Support Service Learning?

Service-learning is an experiential approach to education that encourages students from elementary to college ages to engage actively with social issues through volunteer activities. The volunteering is accompanied by a set of educational goals laid out during the development of the educational program, and may be combined with a traditional instruction component. Students are usually guided to reflect on and analyze their experiences through journal entries, discussions, or presentations.[1]

This kind of educational experience can provide a strong link between material learned in the classroom and real-world problem solving. As a result, these programs increase civic engagement and responsibility in students—those who participate in service-learning are significantly more likely to say they intend to vote.[2] Some programs have a strict agenda of volunteer activities, but others give students autonomy to choose and direct their service projects, providing provides opportunities for leadership, problem-solving, and critical thinking. In some cases, exposure to these kinds of real-world problems (and the organizations working to address them) brings students career direction in a way that traditional curriculum does not.

Participation in service-learning programs develops students’ non-academic skills, such as leadership and community engagement, and principals tend to reference these qualities when explaining their reasons for implementing these programs.[3] Yet service-learning can also be a powerful tool in strengthening academics and engagement. A 2013 study on high school seniors who completed a service-learning course in their senior spring found that the program kept seniors from “tuning out” once the college application process was over. The program gave students a degree of autonomy and allowed them to develop self-directed learning skills that made them feel more academically prepared for college and more engaged in their last semester of high school.[4] However, service-learning is not yet widely recognized as benefitting academics—only 16% of principals who implemented service learning cited improving student participation in the classroom and attitudes about school, and only 12% mention improving student academic achievement.[5]

Service-learning began to gain popularity in the 1970s, and continued to grow throughout the 1990s, when the National and Community Service Act established Serve America, a federal grant-making program for service-learning. It reached a peak in 1999, when 32% of public elementary, middle, and secondary schools had service-learning programs, but has been in decline since then—in 2008, only 24% of schools had programs.[6] Half of the principals of schools who did not implement service-learning cited the main factor in this decision as lack of time due to state curriculum requirements. Another important factor cited by about 40% of principals was lack of funding or other resources.

Both of these challenges could be addressed with state-level changes to policy that would support wider implementation of service-learning programs in public schools. Yet service-learning’s benefits to students’ leadership, engagement, self-directed learning, and civic responsibility cannot be as easily quantified through test skills as other skills. This presents significant challenges to action at the state level, since proof of improvement often seen as a key component of education programs when significant state resources are involved.

However, policy that is favorable to service-learning at the county level has been shown to have a significant impact. For example the Corporation for National and Community Service found that in school districts that had a policy encouraging the integration of service-learning into the curriculum, half of schools had service-learning, compared to only 17% in districts with no service-learning favorable policy.[7] The local policies studied generally involve no funding from the district—simply a stated position educating schools on what service-learning is and encouraging its implementation.

Service-learning’s benefits may be less easily measured than other academic programs, but these programs provide students with valuable tools and experiences and should be supported and encouraged in public schools. If this support came from the state level, programs might be more widely implemented and better funded. However, county-level action seems a more likely and immediate solution. Districts do not even have to commit financial resources—simply having a positive district-level position on service-learning encourages schools to implement these programs, which have the potential to greatly impact students’ lives and learning experiences.



  1. Furco, Andrew. “Service-learning: A balanced approach to experiential education.” (1996).
  2. Billig, Shelley, Susan Root, and Dan Jesse. “The impact of participation in service-learning on high school students’ civic engagement.” (2005).http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/WorkingPapers/WP33Billig.pdf.
  3. Spring, Kimberly, Robert Grimm Jr, and Nathan Dietz. “Community Service and Service-learning in America’s Schools.” Corporation for National and Community Service (2008). http://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/08_1112_lsa_prevalence.pdf
  4. Bent, Anya Lipnick. “The impact of service-learning projects on high school seniors.” PhD diss., New England College, 2014.
  5. Spring, Grimm, and Dietz.
  6. Spring, Grimm, and Dietz.
  7. Spring, Grimm, and Dietz.
Clare O'Brien

Written by Clare O'Brien

Clare is an Associate Editor at the Cornell Policy Review, and a second year CIPA fellow. She recently graduated from Williams College with degrees in Asian Studies and French. Before coming to CIPA, she explored her interest in nonprofit management at a variety of organizations, including the European Women's Lobby,...
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