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White House Summit on Civic Learning and National Service

People sitting around at the White House Summit

On October 16, 2014, the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life (then called the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service) at Tufts University hosted a Summit on Civic Learning and National Service. This invitational Summit brought together 75 higher education leaders, government officials, representatives of civic organizations, and researchers studying civic learning and engagement. The rich conversation brought many themes and disagreements.

Summit proceedings, based on a review of the notes from the Summit, were compiled and summarized by representatives from Tisch College. In our reflection on the discussion, seven themes emerged:

  1. Colleges and universities must support democracy. Educating for democracy and generating knowledge to serve democracy were central purposes of the Morrill Land Grant Act, the GI Bill, and the creation of community colleges. The 1947 Truman Commission on Higher Education for Democracy stated that educating for democracy “should come first … among the principal goals for higher education.” But this heritage has largely been forgotten. The public, policymakers, and leaders of higher education now appear to focus primarily on preparing students for a competitive labor market.
  2. Democratic education means engagement with politics, institutions, and contentious issues—by students, faculty, and staff in their capacity as teachers, learners, researchers, and civic actors. Serving democracy means more than service, although service-learning programs contribute to that mission. Colleges and universities should be places of courageous conversations and action, where the most pressing social, economic, and political needs the nation and world are identified, studied, and debated, and where students develop the skills and sense of agency to act on those needs.
  3. Civic learning must move from “elective and available” to “pervasive and expected.” Since the 1980s, many colleges and universities have created impressive centers and programs for civic engagement, community service, community partnerships, and related topics. These special programs represent a valuable network, distributed across the country and connecting higher education to other sectors. However, they remain fairly marginal in academia itself, enlisting especially interested students and faculty. Some of the institutions represented at the Summit have taken the next step by making civic learning pervasive or even required on their campuses.
  4. Colleges and universities should be partners in local problem solving and anchors in democratic communities. Campuses can support reciprocal faculty-community collaborative research, open their doors to the community, and serve as conveners to identify and facilitate change about local challenges.
  5. Civic learning must be measured and assessed. Unless colleges and universities collect data and use it to improve programs and hold themselves accountable for results, civic learning will not be pervasively effective. Better measurement systems would also demonstrate the value of civic learning for employment and thus mitigate the tradeoff between education for democracy and education for work.
  6. Higher education should tackle growing economic and social inequality based on class and social identity. Many students face economic barriers to civic engagement. At a time of rapidly rising college costs, students may have to work at least one job, may have children of their own, and may hold substantial debt. Some possible solutions to those barriers are course credit for public service experiences, loan forgiveness, and connecting civic and career skills.
  7. Leadership must come from many places, including federal and state policymakers, college administrators, academic departments, students, and also from community-based organizations and business. Many positive steps were proposed at the Summit, from raising the proportion of work-study funds available for community work to changing state or even federal measurement systems to include civic outcomes. Above all, the stakeholders must return the civic and democratic mission of higher education to its traditional high status in American life.

Based on the Summit discussions, we would suggest both an interest in and a need for continued work in two areas:

  • Collective work among scholars and practitioners on what the research shows regarding the nature, scope, and effectiveness of civic learning and engagement in democracy; and
  • Further, focused discussion among educators and policy makers to prioritize specific actions at the campus, collaborative, state, and federal, levels to advance civic learning and engagement in democracy.