History of Service-Learning on Colleges
and University Campuses

Community service and civic engagement have a long history on American campuses beginning in the 19th century and finding revitalization in the 1960s, 1980s, and today. For example, community service activities in Greek-letter organizations and campus faith-based groups have had an enduring presence on campuses. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, the formation of the Peace Corps in 1961, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in 1965 brought a new passionate energy to activist education by engaging young people and giving them real opportunities to make a difference in the world. It was during this time period that the early pioneers of the service-learning movement began to emerge and attempted to combine service with learning in a direct and powerful way.

In 1969, these pioneers and others concerned with higher education and community service met in Atlanta to discuss the pros and cons of service-learning and the importance of implementing these types of programs in American colleges and universities. Sponsors included the Southern Regional Education Board, the City of Atlanta, Atlanta Urban Corps, Peace Corps, VISTA, and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The participants in the conference came up with the following recommendations:

Since that first conference, service-learning scholars and participants have been advocating for these same recommendations, and the vibrant and vital discussion of the best practices and ideas for service-learning continues to this day.

Revitalization in the 1980-90s

The early to mid 1980s saw a resurgence of interest in campus service and service-learning with a national initiative to promote service among undergraduate students. National service efforts were launched across the country, including: the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (1984), which helps to mobilize service programs in higher education; the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps (1985), which helps replicate youth corps in states and cities; National Youth Leadership Council (1982), which helps to prepare future leaders; and Youth Service America (1985), which gives many young people a chance to serve. In 1985, the Education Commission of the States founded Campus Compact, a leader in service-learning advocacy.

The period from 1989-1990 saw the creation of the Office of National Service and the Points of Light Foundation in order to foster volunteering at a national level. This led to the National and Community Service Act of 1990, which was passed by Congress and signed by President George H.W. Bush. The legislation authorized grants for schools to support service-learning and demonstration grants for national service programs to youth corps and nonprofits, as well as colleges and universities. It also created the organization Serve America whose goal was to “distribute grants in support of service-learning in order to simultaneously enrich the education of young people, demonstrate the value of youth as assets to their communities, and stimulate service-learning as a strategy to meet unmet community needs.”

In 1993 President Clinton approved legislation that repositioned Serve America, as well as the AmeriCorps and Senior Corps programs, under one roof with the creation of Learn and Serve America.

Service-Learning in Higher Education Today

The present moment of renewed attention to the civic mission of universities has been called the “fourth wave” of higher education civic engagement initiatives. This wave is a forward-looking vision at the future of higher-education itself. Today, this movement extends beyond efforts to bring civic engagement to individual classrooms with a push toward a fully-engaged university as a whole, and it is characterized by active, vibrant partnerships of scholars, students, and citizens who have the support and resources to achieve impressive advances in education and in transforming communities nationwide.