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The Development of Civic Values and Skills: An Analysis by Race, Gender and Social Class
Lori J. Vogelgesang, Research Analyst, Higher Education Research Institute, University of California, Los Angeles

There has been increasing attention given to the role higher education plays in creating and enabling democracy and civic engagement within an ever more diverse population. An important measure of how successfully higher education cultivates engaged citizens is reflected in the values, beliefs, and behaviors of students. My research focuses on a set of outcome measures that reflect some of the values and beliefs that support engagement in a diverse democracy. I examine the impact of curricular and co-curricular activities like community service on the development of those values.

Existing research on campus diversity and service learning has not included a close examination of how race, socioeconomic class, and gender intersect to shape the college experience for students engaged in activities like community service. This particular longitudinal study examines whether the effect of college environments on the development of civic values varies among students of different races, and whether gender and class have different effects on the development of civic values for different racial groups.


The data collected was part of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), which is sponsored by the American Council on Education and the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles. The survey data was collected from students as they entered college in the mid-1990s and again in 1998.

The sample for this study consists of 19,915 students who completed both the freshman and follow-up surveys. Collectively, the students represent 170 institutions (84% of the students in the study came from private colleges and universities). Most of the students in this study (77 percent) entered college in 1994. The analysis focuses on four racial groups--547 African American students, 928 Asian American/ Asian students, 755 Latino students, including Mexican American/Chicano, Puerto Rican American and "other Latino" students, and 17,483 White students.

Preliminary Findings

The research seeks to measure "Civic Engagement Through Commitment to Activism," a composite measure of seven items reflecting the importance of getting involved in one's community and working for political and social change. For this "activism" measure (as well as for commitment to racial understanding and getting along with people of other races and cultures), analysis revealed significant differences between racial groups. It also showed differences within racial groups based on gender and social class background.

Overall, Latinos and African American students tend to increase their commitment to activism, while Asians/Asian Americans and Whites tend to decrease their commitment over the course of their college years. African Americans and Latinos also enter college with higher levels of commitment to this value than do their White or Asian/Asian American peers.

In the regression analysis, some interesting differences among racial groups also emerged. Among Asian and Asian American students, women are less likely than are men to decrease their level of commitment to activism. For White students, the opposite is true: men are less likely than women to decrease their commitment. For African American students, men are more likely than women to increase their commitment to activism, and for Latinos, there are no gender differences.

Latinos are the only group to display significant differences based on social class: those from lower social class backgrounds were more likely to increase their commitment to activism than Latinos from higher social class families.

Impact of Cross-Racial Contact and Diversity Learning Experiences

For White students, those who participate in more cross-racial interactions report change toward a greater commitment to activism, as do Whites and Latinos who took at least one ethnic studies course. For all four race groups, participating in community service is a strong and consistent predictor of positive change on the measure of commitment to activism. It is the only college activity to have such an effect across all race groups.

Future Research

Gender and social class play different roles for students, depending on their race. Further research is needed to understand the reasons. for these differences within racial groups. These preliminary findings, however, confirm the need to go beyond using race, gender, and social class as variables in an equation that encompasses all students. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge interventions (in this case, community service) that play a role regardless of racial background.

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