Participation in Youth Service

By Nora Fleming — April 11, 2011 4 min read
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This Friday, April 15, marks the annual Global Youth Service Day, the largest service event in the world and the only service day just for young people. The event, sponsored by Youth Service America, will go through the weekend, as millions of youths participate in more than 3,000 projects in 100 countries and all 50 states. Later this week, I’ll bring you more about the event, but first I’m going to delve into some background and context on youth participation in service and service-learning today.

I asked some questions of Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a research center located at Tufts University that focuses on youth engagement in politics and civic life, specifically around topics like civic education, youth opinion, community participation, and service learning.

These issues are timely, as Levine mentions, given that there have been recent congressional proposals to eliminate or reduce the funding for some national youth-service programs like AmeriCorps. According to an advisor from the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that supports AmeriCorps, it is unclear if last week’s budget agreement will include these reductions.

EW: Have positive connections been found between youths that participate in service and their behavior, particularly as it relates to academic improvement or declines in delinquency?
PL: According to research published by CIRCLE, students who participated in required community service were 22 percentage points more likely to graduate from college than those who did not and were more likely to have improved their reading, math, science, and history scores. Students who performed voluntary community service were 19 percentage points more likely to graduate from college than those who did not.

EW: What have been the trends in rates of national youth service in the past few years? What are some contributing factors, in your opinion, to why it’s been on the rise/decline?
PL: The most important trend is a substantial increase over the past four decades. Basically, today’s young people volunteer at record-high rates. Three quarters of high school seniors say they volunteer, up from 63 percent in 1976, according to an excellent survey called Monitoring the Future. That said, the high point for youth volunteering came in 2003, and there has been modest decline each year since.

EW: Do these rates of participation vary significantly by cities, states, and regions—are some locations more likely than others to have youths participate?
PL: The variation is extraordinary. For example, in Mississippi, 9 percent of 19-24 year olds said they volunteered last year (according to the U.S. Census Bureau). While in Washington state, 27 percent said they volunteered. We just completed a study called “Tale of Two Cities” that compared Minneapolis-St. Paul, which has the highest volunteering rate in the nation, and Miami, which has the lowest. Some states and localities have much deeper traditions of civic engagement, stronger and more welcoming civic organizations, and more favorable policies for service.

EW: What federal legislation or funding exists to support youth service and service learning?
PL: Youth service is funded through AmeriCorps. That is a large federal program, allocated almost $1.15 billion in 2011, although the House Republicans have proposed to eliminate it altogether. People do not enroll in AmeriCorps directly but in various AmeriCorps-funded programs such as City Year and Public Allies. Two other important federal programs are YouthBuild and the Peace Corps. Service-learning in schools is supported by a much smaller federal program called Learn & Serve America, but more support (by far) comes from local school districts.

EW: What seem to be the most important factors that influence whether young people will take part in service: encouragement from the school, free time, etc.? Are there demographic trends, specifically groups that are more likely to participate than others?
PL: More privileged or advantaged young people are more likely to serve. The volunteering rate for young adults who have been to college is more than twice as high as the rate for their peers who have not gone to college. Advantaged students often attend high schools and then colleges that offer service opportunities, which are often missing in poor schools and communities. In turn, service boosts their educational success.

EW: Have links been found between youths who participate in community service as children and adults who actively participate in service or are more civically engaged?
PL: Yes, service is habit-forming. Even mandatory service experiences have been found to increase voluntary service later on.

EW: Is Maryland still the only state that requires community service? Have there been legal issues regarding requiring community service in schools?
PL: Maryland still has the only statewide requirement, but several very large school districts (such as Chicago) also require service or service-learning. There are no legal obstacles, but requirements are controversial, and voters may oppose them. I do not personally favor mandatory service unless we are sure that the service opportunities provided to all students are valuable.

Image: Peter Levine. CIRCLE.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Beyond School blog.