Study examines correlation between college student community engagement and prosocial behavior

July 29, 2022

Does involvement in community engagement impact college students’ moral development and sense of responsibility to others? Recent research published by Tara Hudson, Ph.D., associate professor of higher education administration at Kent State University and Jay Brandenberger, Ph.D., professor of the practice at the Center for Social Concerns and concurrent professor in psychology, shows some correlation between one type of community engagement and students’ moral development. “College Students’ Moral and Prosocial Responsibility: Associations with Community Engagement Experiences,” was published in the May, 2022 volume of the Journal of Experiential Education. The study was part of a three-year, multi-institutional study connecting educational initiatives with moral and prosocial behavior and was based upon survey data from nearly 700 University of Notre Dame undergraduate students.

Focusing on the role of community engagement, the research examined whether several types of community engagement, such as international service or community-engaged research, could predict moral or prosocial behaviors. Overall, Hudson and Brandenberger explored six key variables: moral identity, perspective taking, civic purpose, meaningful philosophy of life, importance of social action engagement, and social justice behavioral intentions. Independent variables included demographics, drinking behavior, academic program, and religious beliefs.

Results indicated that one type of community engagement––public service––predicted the prosocial outcomes of moral identity and civic purpose. There was no connection between development of prosocial behaviors and the other types of surveyed community engagement experiences––service learning, domestic service, international service, community-based research, and service club. While it was not the focus of the study, there was a much greater relationship between students’ existing beliefs and moral and prosocial outcomes. While it may be hopeful to think that all engagement experiences will lead to direct prosocial outcomes, Hudson and Brandenberger discuss their findings in terms of developmental and educational contexts. They note that students’ moral foundations and commitment to social justice may precede, rather than result from, participation in engagement. Such moral inclination––in this study, moral identity was salient––may lead students to participate in community engagement experiences as well as be an outcome of such. The authors suggest further research to address such questions.

Read the article in the Journal of Experiential Education.