Story Service Learning

First-Year Students Involved in Civic Engagement More Likely to Have Higher Retention Rates

Christianne Salvador

With the 2017-18 academic year underway, first-year students at several CSU campuses are being prepped to take part in civic engagement, where they will find motivation that will follow them through graduation day.


Motivation fuels student learning and several CSU campuses are giving students a sense of purpose by implementing civic engagement during their first year of college.

The idea is to cultivate leadership in the community early in the undergraduate experience while stimulating collaboration with their peers and faculty. As a result, campuses are seeing a strong correlation between civic engagement and retention rates.

For these campuses, civic engagement programs are part of the First-Year Experience (FYE) - a set of programs and services designed to help first-year undergraduate students transition into college life. Although each campus varies in their FYE program offerings, all programs under the FYE umbrella support the Graduation Initiative 2025 goal of improving graduation rates.

Tailored to Fit Each Community

Through civic engagement programs, students take part in a project that concerns the surrounding community. Since community issues tend to be localized, the types of projects vary between campuses.

At Humboldt State, first-year STEM students participate in Klamath Connection, a place-based learning unique to the geographic landscape of the campus. Students conduct environmental research on the Klamath River as they partner with faculty, peer mentors, professional scientists, Native American tribal nations and environmental restoration groups.

The year-long program enrolls students in the same classes together, creating a "learning community" and making it possible for administrators to link curriculum content from one class to another. In one example, students collect algae from the river so they can study the sample in botany class, analyze the data in math class and evaluate their hypothesis in a critical thinking class.

Klamath Connection welcomed its first cohort in the 2015-16 school year and has shown significant contribution to increasing Humboldt State's retention rates. Eighty-four percent of first-year students who participated in the program returned to the campus for their second year, versus 72 percent for non-participants. Gaps for underrepresented minority and first-generation students almost disappeared in first-year GPAs and units completed toward degree. The Klamath Connection program is also supported by a CSU STEM VISTA member, part of the university's efforts to foster cultural and systemic change in STEM. 

Cal State East Bay's Freshmen Day of Service also shows strong evidence of its effectiveness through increased retention rates.

For one day during the spring semester, freshmen engage in community service around the city of Hayward. Students choose from a list of community service projects, including food preparation to address food insecurity and a technical assistance workshop for community members to learn about using computers and other high-tech gadgets.

The results are staggering. The most recent data from the fall 2015 cohort shows that 88 percent of participants returned for their sophomore year, versus 53 percent for non-participants.

Empowering Students to Succeed on Campus and in the Community

When polled about their experience in the Freshmen Day of Service, Cal State East Bay students showed a shift in perspective when it came to personal capabilities and their impact on the community.

A common narrative is that the program gave them confidence to do things that they didn't think they could do. They realized that they are capable of making contributions to solve community issues and solve any difficult problem that they put their minds to.

"Students gain a stronger sense of identity within the university and of their role in the community," said Mary D'Alleva, director of the Center for Community Engagement at Cal State East Bay. "They become compelled to take responsibility in their surroundings and become agents of change as college students."

At Chico State, a high-profile approach to civic engagement empowers first-year students to speak up on community issues that matters most to them.

The Public Sphere Pedagogy program is part of the required GE curriculum, where students take a stand on a specific public issue through an open-to-the-public debate or town hall meeting held in downtown Chico.

Topics include immigration and mental health. Through research, classroom learning and collaboration with campus and community peers, students gain ammunition to engage in a public dialogue in front of as many as 2,000 community members.

"By understanding legislation and facts about a specific public policy issue, students have a better understanding of world and community problems," said Thia Wolf, director of the First-Year Experience Program at Chico State. "Because the topic is meaningful to them, they realize how important their educational experience is."

Organized Environment Promotes Student Success

Civic engagement influences students as emerging adults during their first year of college. The experience fosters skills and habits that promote student success, leading to improved performance in their courses.

Matt Johnson, co-director of Klamath Connection at Humboldt State, says that the correlation between increased retention rates and civic engagement can also be due to students' realizing the connection between their college experience, the community and the world.

"If students feel like they are part of a community, then their environment becomes in sync with one another and their world becomes more organized," explains Johnson. "This clarity allows them to better focus on their studies and provide stronger support for each other. This, of course, leads to better grades and better grades leads to higher retention rates." 

Graduation Initiative