Service Learning is Key

When college students transfer or drop out of an institution, critics are quick to suggest that today's colleges are too expensive and aren't giving students what they want or need.

Their argument leads to the support of online learning, particularly that Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the answer to our future education needs. But when students drop out of MOOCs, which are free of charge and still exhibit very small completion rates, there is no such outcry. This is ostensibly because no financial loss was incurred; but a student's failure to complete a free course must also suggest that he/she is not wholly satisfied.

And so the debate about higher education's best practices continues.

But for veterans of higher education -- those who taught from classrooms and labs for decades before the current online boom came on scene -- the current debate sounds a bit like earlier discussions of the complementary roles of curricular and co-curricular work. We all agree that campus life should amount to something more than a room and meals, but to what extent do we engage students in various activities and how should these activities relate to the curricular experience we provide?

At Marietta College, we have something called "Alternative Spring Break." Rather than head to a sun-drenched beach for the week, some of our students opt to form work crews. This year, one such group traveled to the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation in South Dakota, where they pledged to build outhouses, install underpinning to mobile homes to keep the wind from chilling the floors, and to build bed frames for children living on the reservation.

But before their work could begin, these students logged more than 20 hours in passenger vans to arrive at their destinations -- a journey that included an unexpected snowstorm, which added hours to their travel. Since the group consisted of students from the U.S. and students from China, this was an opportunity for both groups to gather some international perspective.

As the students described their experiences, it was clear that they also learned a bit about life in other parts of this country. Domestic students found themselves shocked to learn of the level of poverty they saw, and hadn't imagined the situation could be so desperate within their own country. And, after hearing a tribal elder speak of past injustices heaped on the tribe by the U.S. government, a student from China asked how he could criticize the government so openly and without fear of retribution. The students told us they had much to consider and discuss, and the ride home felt considerably shorter than the ride out... and not just because of the snowstorm.

Having made a number of beds for children who had never had their own bed, our students could have returned with a final sense of accomplishment. However, they immediately launched a collection drive and shipped back a truckload of mattresses, bedding and blankets for use on the new beds they had constructed.

The campus community, including the administration and the Board of Trustees, provided these students the opportunity to reflect on their experiences publicly during a presentation about their Alternative Spring Break. All of us were moved by their commitment, by their ongoing concern, and by the vigor with which they acted.

Over my years as a faculty member and academic advisor, I have occasionally asked students where they learn what they learn on campus. In these idle conversations I have had, students conclude that they pick up anywhere from 40 percent to 50 percent of what they learn in the classroom and the rest from other experiences on campus.

Having spent nearly 30 years in the classroom, I first found this a bit disconcerting and had trouble reconciling it with the learning I had witnessed in my chemistry classrooms. But I quickly came to realize this is exactly why we all invest so much in our residential experience. In many ways, it is comforting to know that a strong partnership between Academic Affairs and Student Life professionals can lead to this outcome. Indeed, as we have entered the world of assessment, it is only reasonable that we are designing learning outcomes for participation in a range of campus activities.

While some critics reasonably ask whether America's colleges are imparting the sorts of values needed in a civil society, many of us are doing so with enormous success, and we have learned one thing over the decades: A commitment to service can't be taught online or even in the classroom; it must be lived out in the world. College leaders understand this and see it every week, and others need to realize it as well.