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Civic values in college: Student-level and institutional-level effects

2013 study in Journal of College Student Development that shows how various factors help explain the development of civic values through college.

College is a time when many young adults develop civic values while engaging with their peers. So how much do the civic values of the typical student develop between freshman and senior years? The answer to this question and the explanations behind it have deep implications for college policies intended to promote civic engagement.

A 2013 study published in the Journal of College Student Development, Predictors of Civic Values: Understanding Student-Level and Institutional-Level Effects” (PDF), sought to better understand the factors that influence the “importance that students assign to their involvement in activities that promote a social and civic community.” The study utilized survey data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program from 2000 and 2004. The sample was comprised of 12,013 students attending 57 four-year institutions who completed survey questions both in 2000, when they entered college, and again four years later when they were seniors.

The researcher, from the University of Washington, examined how students rated the following dimensions of civic values: “(a) influencing the political structure; (b) influencing social values; (c) becoming involved in programs to clean up [the] environment; (d) developing a meaningful philosophy of life; (e) participating in community action programs; (f) helping to promote racial understanding; (g) keeping up to date with politics; (h) becoming a community leader.”

The study’s findings include:

  • Colleges whose students had high standardized test scores did not necessarily perform very well: Institutions in the sample having higher mean SAT scores were found to have lower civic value scores in 2004 than institutions with lower mean SAT scores.
  • Women and students with higher high school GPAs were found to have lower civic value scores. Being of higher socioeconomic status and being a student of color were associated with higher civic values.
  • As for women’s lower scores, the researcher notes that this data represents a “new finding when comparing results to prior studies examining civic values.” Although men and women had similar civic value scores in 2000, by senior year the scores for men were “significantly higher” than those for women. The reasons for this are unclear and require more research. (Over the past decade, it should be noted, many reports have found women outpacing men in terms of campus engagement.)
  • “Political orientation in students’ senior year significantly impacted civic values; as students’ political orientation moves from right (conservative) to left (liberal), civic values increases.”
  • A number of student characteristics in college were also found to impact civic value scores. Students who took an ethnic or women’s studies course typically had a significantly higher civic value score than students who took neither. Study abroad and majoring in a social science were also positively correlated with civic value. Involvement in student government, participation in leadership training, and engaging in protest also were associated with higher civic value scores. Whether or not a student volunteers — in particular, the amount of time spent volunteering — had the second strongest association with greater civic values.
  • The most powerful predictor of students’ civic values in 2004 was their score four years earlier, suggesting that the formation of values prior to college remained extremely important.

The researcher notes that some institutions place great value on standardized tests in making admissions decisions. The study notes, however, that “selective institutions do not always fare positively across student outcomes related to fostering civic values when compared to less selective institutions.”

Tags: higher education

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