Undergraduates and postgraduates at the University of Iowa are working to find new sources of energy - geothermal, solar, wind - for every building in the surrounding city of Dubuque, where a power plant is scheduled to close.
Students at the University of Wisconsin are generating electricity, and profits, from cow manure on dairy farms in Oshkosh, where revenues have plummeted due to low milk prices.
Long an undercurrent of the US academy, service by universities and their students to the communities around them - in academic parlance, “engagement” - has risen to the surface exactly 150 years after its importance was recognised in the landmark legislation that created many of the nation’s most prominent campuses.
Students are demanding it. Universities are using it to win back support from legislators and taxpayers. And there is a new-found enthusiasm for connecting service with learning. All this is layered on top of Americans’ persistent determination to help.
“Service is part of our history, part of our spirit,” attests Hiram Fitzgerald, associate provost for university outreach and engagement at Michigan State University. “It gets us into trouble sometimes,” he adds, jokingly.
Universities are counting on community service to have precisely the opposite effect at a time when they are struggling to cope with budget cuts and exhorting voters in states including California to restore some of their funding.
This resurgence comes against the backdrop of the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in the summer of 1862 as the US Civil War was raging. Named after Justin Morrill, the Vermont congressman who introduced it, the act ultimately established more than 70 universities nationwide, most of them public, but also some private and quasi-public, including Purdue, Cornell, Rutgers, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California system; the universities of Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin; and Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania state universities.
These institutions were meant to democratise higher education, then primarily the province of the upper classes, and also to serve their home states. Most added so-called extension services to apply their research into agriculture and manufacturing to the practical needs of their regions.
“This was part of Justin Morrill’s vision, and Abraham Lincoln’s: universities for the people, for the working class,” says Charles Hibberd, associate dean of agriculture and extension director at Purdue. “It became obvious that there wasn’t enough new knowledge to solve the problems of the day, so people started doing research. But if new knowledge is locked up in a peer-reviewed journal somewhere and not transformed into products people can use, it’s not worth much, especially to the taxpayers who support us.”
The commemoration of the Morrill Act anniversary, marked at the end of June at a Washington event featuring Microsoft chairman and philanthropist Bill Gates as keynote speaker, is one reason why the topic of service in higher education is enjoying a revival.
But there are many others. The project in Oshkosh turning biogas into power, for example, will ultimately make money for the university whose students are conducting the research. It will also be at the centre of a biosolids research and teaching laboratory. The Iowa outreach effort is part of a course for second-year master’s students called Field Problems in Planning.
Both represent another new trend in service: connecting it with classroom learning, which has been shown to improve students’ year-to-year return and completion rates.
When a national organisation called Campus Compact was established in 1985 by the presidents of Stanford, Brown and Georgetown to formally renew the idea of service first envisaged by the Morrill Act, Fitzgerald says, “the emphasis was more on the service than on the learning.
“Over the past 15 years, there’s been an increasing emphasis on the learning part of service learning. From the university’s perspective, if institutions are investing in the support services necessary to monitor students’ work in communities, there has to be some tie-in to students’ reason for being at the university.”
The semantics have changed, too. Community service is now often known as “engaged scholarship” and “community-engaged learning”. What started out at Michigan State as the Office of Volunteerism has evolved into the Center for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement.
There, each volunteer opportunity is assessed for its relevance to students’ coursework, Fitzgerald explains: “Does it give them a deeper understanding of their role in a civil democracy? Do they learn skills?” Students for whom performing service is connected to an academic course of study have their attendance and contributions formally evaluated.
The increased emphasis on preparing students for the workforce is another reason why universities are more closely connecting service with learning, says Judy Botelho, director of the Center for Community Engagement at the 23-campus California State University system.
“Millennial students (those entering higher education after 2000) are coming into college with the objective of getting a job. Some students may be reluctant to do service learning because they don’t see it helping them to do that. But it can teach some great soft job skills and get you great connections.”
Of course, not all students have ulterior motives for performing community service. Although few universities make it a formal requirement, about a third of students take part anyway.
At Michigan State, which has just under 48,000 students, about 18,000 perform community service at any given time. Of those, 5,000 participate in off-campus community activities directly related to their studies. In the California State University system, nearly half of its present cohort of 4,000 students are engaged in some kind of community service, a 114 per cent increase over the past 10 years.
Universities, in turn, closely track these numbers because they are important ammunition in efforts to persuade legislators, governors and taxpayers that public higher education is worth the money. For example, the California State system estimates that its students perform 32 million hours of service annually. Using a nationally accepted hourly pay rate of $21.36 (£13.75), it calculates that this creates an annual economic impact of $684 million - nearly a third of what the state currently spends (after years of huge budget cuts) to run the campuses. Michigan State, Kansas State University, the University of Kentucky and other schools use an “outreach engagement measurement instrument” to calculate the same things.
“There’s no question about it, we’re generating a lot of metrics,” Fitzgerald says. “There’s not an institution in this country that is not actively stressing that part of what they do.”
Botelho says there is pressure to go even further. “We’ve done a decent job, but we need to do more. One of the high priorities out of the chancellor’s office is to do a research project on the impact of these practices. How do we make the case to our taxpayers and our legislators?”
M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the group that represents higher education institutions established by the Morrill Act, says that demonstrating the sector’s impact on society is now essential.
“You need to quantify it,” he argues. “You can’t just say we’re going to do it and we believe in it. You have to give examples.”
There are other practical reasons for universities to reach out, says Maureen Curley, president of Campus Compact, which has grown steadily from its original three members to 1,200 institutions today. “We’re only as healthy as the communities that are around us,” Curley says. “We’re dependent on each other.”
Syracuse University, for instance, bought and renovated an abandoned warehouse in the rust-belt city in upstate New York where it is located, and moved some of its departments there. It cleaned up a contaminated lot and made it the site of a new centre for environmental and energy systems. One of its faculty created a free iPhone app that local residents can use to check the city bus schedule, often affected in winter by snow.
“From my perspective it goes back to the social contract between all universities and society,” says Nancy Cantor, Syracuse’s chancellor. To put it simply, “we are generally in this together,” she says.
Moreover, she observes, “all the pressing issues of the world are right there” in the communities surrounding campuses.
“The historical, literary, classical perspectives on the world, the theoretical physics - all of that is relevant, but there’s no reason to think that it can’t be put in the context of an institution addressing local problems.”
But while generating public and political support for universities is important, much of the increase in community service on American campuses is being driven by students, not institutions.
This generation of US students has already volunteered while in secondary school, in some cases to improve their prospects when applying to universities, but often also as part of social or religious groups. A national annual survey of first-year undergraduates conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles found that 57 per cent participated in community service in their final year of high school - in spite of the fact that this was too late for it to affect their university applications one way or the other - while a third said they expected to continue doing so in university.
Even though a growing number of students are working to help pay for their studies - 80 per cent of students at Michigan State, for instance, work part-time - this has not affected their community service work. In fact, employed students spend more than six and a half hours a week doing community service, which is more than students who do not work, according to a 2005 study by the Social and Behavioral Research Institute at California State University San Marcos.
Women are more likely to perform community service than men, with 51 per cent of the former participating in service work compared with 41 per cent of the latter. A third of students said they received course credit for undertaking community service, and about a quarter said they did it as part of a campus club, religious group or fraternal organisation.
Academics are a different story. There are few rewards for faculty members who encourage service learning. Some universities, however, say they are trying to change this state of affairs. Michigan State, for example, has included community-based learning as one of its new standards for tenure and promotion. But it is still a struggle to get faculty on board, Curley says.
Despite renewed interest in service learning in the sector, many universities remain so socio-economically distant from their surrounding communities that the traditional “town-gown” rift is hard to overcome. When pressed, fewer than half the American Association of State Colleges and Universities presidents and chancellors who responded to a survey by the group said they believed their institutions were closely linked to their communities.
The same budget cuts that are prompting universities to prove their worth are also chipping away at support for service programmes, which can be expensive to coordinate. But many are considered important enough to universities’ images to have been preserved.
In California, for example, where budgets have been deeply cut, the California State University system has preserved offices and directors of community engagement on all its campuses.
Universities have other incentives for this work. The Carnegie Commission on Higher Education revised its classification system for universities by adding a new category for community engagement in 2008. Since then, 300 institutions have been designated “community-engagement” campuses, a label they use to promote themselves to community-minded applicants. In Massachusetts, the higher education governing board has decreed that it will track how good a job its public universities do at civic engagement, just as it monitors completion rates and other outcomes. And the American Council on Education is running an ongoing campaign to promote the idea that higher education is a public good.
But even without such inducements, Botelho says, community service would happen on US university campuses. “The whole notion of service, and structured community service, is definitely American,” she says. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 book Democracy in America, Botelho observes, he “was amazed at how people got together to solve problems. There was not the sense that government is going to take care of it. That’s really part of our country, and what the idea of being a citizen means.”