Higher ed.’s role in the community: What you gain when you give back. 

Sadly, higher education doesn’t have the sheen it used to. Prospective students just aren’t sure a post-secondary degree carries enough value to justify its expense. Consequently, you’re in the fight of your life trying to get people to attend your college or university. You might even be fighting to attract enough faculty and staff in the midst of an employee-driven hiring market. 

But, have faith: There’s one thing that is universally good for your school, its students (current and prospective), and your faculty and staff. Something that can help you draw people to your institution, despite the difficult higher ed. environment. We’re talking about community service. 

Below, we dive into the reasons to commit to higher ed. community service and provide examples of colleges and universities doing service right. 

Higher ed. community service is a higher calling than CSR.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is buzzy in the business sphere. And although it’s great that corporations are giving back, CSR can sometimes feel phony if not closely aligned with corporate values it can come across as superficial. However, in general, that’s not true of higher ed. service. That’s because the higher ed. world has long been committed to community service. An Ohio State University study notes, “Since the founding of Harvard in 1636, American universities have existed, in part, to serve the needs of society.”

In short, social responsibility for schools is more organic than it is for corporations because it has been a part of the fabric of higher education for centuries. In fact, it’s most likely built into your own school’s mission statement

There’s no time like the present to reclaim or even amplify your commitment to the community surrounding your college or university. Fostering the public good is, in a sense, your missional and moral obligation.

Purpose (and mission, and vision) statement worksheet

Whether you’re developing a purpose statement to complement your mission and vision, or you’re revisiting all three statements for your higher ed. institution – our worksheet allows you to compare these interrelated messages side by side while you craft and finalize.
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Appeal to the social justice generation. 

Now, for a more tangible reason to shore up your higher ed. institution’s community service initiatives. Gen Z all but demands social action from the organizations it associates with — including the post-secondary schools they’re considering. 

One Deloitte study even found that a university’s commitment to service can inspire future, at-risk students to pursue higher education.

The students you’re trying to attract need to see that you care about your community in a real way. If they’re going to go to college at all, they want to get involved in community service, not just read books in the campus library.

Let your involvement in service be a differentiator for your university. 

Faculty and staff appreciate community service as much as students do.

You’re not alone if you’re short-staffed right now. Like we said, it’s an employee-driven hiring market. Good news: Community service can attract faculty and staff to your school in addition to students. 

That same Deloitte study noted above also found that professors who serve in the community often discover that the volunteer work informs their scholarship and/or teaching. And a more inspired professor is more likely to stay put at your school. 

It’s also important to remember that your institution is taking up space in the community. It’s probably a major local employer. It’s only right that you work to improve the community that your school and many of its staff are a part of. 

Form alliances with important higher ed. stakeholders. 

While we’re discussing being a member of the community around you, it’s worth noting that acts of service will help you form alliances with community members. In fact, it’s proven that community service builds better relationships with at-risk or underrepresented groups by combating the ivory tower reputation inherent to higher education. 

Community service that strikes a chord with alumni and donors can also increase their allegiance to and support of your college or university, which you already know is vital to your bottom line and reputation. These sorts of alliances can last a lifetime and become invaluable to your school

Community service boosts your school’s reputation. 

So far, we’ve detailed how higher ed. community service is appealing to: 

  • Current students
  • Prospective students
  • Faculty
  • Staff
  • Community members
  • Alumni 
  • Donors 

With all of these stakeholder groups in favor of your higher ed. institution’s service activities, your school’s reputation will benefit. Your research profile will go up, for example. Your media image will be improved, as well. 

That said, conducting community service should never be about reputation management. While it’s only natural to acknowledge the fringe benefits of higher ed. service, this activity is chiefly about bettering the community you’re so ingrained in. 

3 higher ed. institutions conducting inspiring community service.  

Enough talking about community service. Let’s see how real schools get it done. Use these three examples as inspiration to create or reinvigorate your own institution’s service initiatives. 

1. Queen’s University Law School

This Canadian graduate school recognizes that members of the legal profession ultimately have a duty to give back. As such, they require their students to perform acts of service. The goal is for these students to carry a sense of engagement and commitment with them when they graduate and immerse themselves into the communities where they’ll practice law. 

Queen’s University keeps its commitment to service through three worthy programs: 

  • Law & Leadership Summer Camp
  • Pathways to Education Partnership
  • Queen’s Law Fall & Winter Classic 

2. Sonoma State University

While colleges often say they want their faculty members to be engaged in the surrounding community, such service is rarely counted toward promotion and tenure. This California college walks the walk by requiring its tenure-track and tenured faculty members to do community service as part of its tenure-and-promotion process. 

Talk about baking community service into your school’s mission statement — and job descriptions. Take a page from Sonoma State’s book and empower your faculty to do more for your community. 

3. University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning 

Buffalo’s architecture program smartly built service into its curriculum. They say, “…the city is the textbook or teaching lab.” Students have developed community gardens and economic plans as well as overhauled local building and zoning codes

This is a huge win-win. Students learn about urban preservation and renewal — a topic vital to their future industry — and the community benefits from the students’ projects and faculty expertise.

Giving back “pays” back in spades. 

At the end of the day, what’s good for the community is good for your higher ed. institution. You want to attract students to your school, sure, but you also want to release students into the world. Students who are kind, well-rounded, generous, and giving. Those lessons can start in your classrooms and the broader community around them. 

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