<< The Body Politic

Do Community Service Requirements Decrease Volunteerism?

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

While “service learning” is popular in many schools, with 19 states granting graduation credit for volunteer work, a recent study suggests that mandatory volunteer work may actually result in a decline in long-term volunteering from students. Sarah D. Sparks, writing for EdWeek, makes the case that incentivizing service learning in schools, rather than outright mandating it, may help students become more invested in volunteerism.

Service learning is defined broadly as any activity in which students engage in projects to improve their communities, and service learning has been touted for its benefits to students. According to Sparks, studies suggest that students who volunteer more frequently tend to be high-achieving and less prone to risky behavior. As a result, in 1992, Maryland became the first and only state to require service learning of all public high school graduates.

However, the mandate does not appear to be wholly successful. A study by Professor Sara E. Helms of Samford University published in the Economics of Education Review found that Maryland’s mandate increased volunteer rates among 8th grade students, but sharply reduced volunteering among 12th grade students, even while national volunteer rates rose. Maryland 12th graders went from a group that outperformed the national average for volunteerism to a group that dramatically fell below average. The mandate appears to have modified the timing of volunteerism, but did not create a culture of lifelong volunteerism.

Helms suggests that the explanation may lie in the forced nature of the volunteer work:

If this is for school, how do we know [students] are considering this as community service, rather than just homework for school? One of the interpretations that is more convincing is, maybe we are substituting this [requirement] for being self-motivated. Does it dilute the signal value of volunteering?

Helms argues that service learning should play an important role in schools, but that mandating service may not be the right approach. Instead, districts could provide incentives to students to engage in service learning, which may have a better chance at fostering livelong commitment to their communities.