The Benefits of Volunteering for College Students: Community Service Programs in Higher Education

When a student reflects on his or her college experience, what do they hope to remember? Lifelong friends, riveting classroom discussions, and walking across that stage to get their diplomas are all highlights of the university experience. But in today’s quickly evolving job market, there’s one thing students should be adding to their list of college memories: making a difference.

While the benefits of volunteering for college students are innumerable, engaging college volunteers presents its own challenges. College students are less likely to volunteer than their parents and high school students, and they volunteer fewer hours. Despite lower participation rates, college students still believe it’s important to help others in need. Deciphering how to turn sentiment into action can become advantageous for college students, the universities they attend, and the communities they serve. Let’s start by understanding (and imparting) the benefits of volunteering for college students

The Benefits of Volunteering at University

Why should college students volunteer? Volunteering has its advantages for any individual, yet there are specific benefits of community service for college students that can lead to positive outcomes for university volunteers and the communities they serve. 

Boost Resume and Improve Job Prospects

According to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, volunteering is associated with a 27% higher odds of employment. Employers are 82% more likely to choose a candidate with volunteering experience and 85% more likely to overlook resume flaws when the candidate’s resume includes volunteer experience. Students that enter the workforce with volunteer experience are not only boosting their resumes but are effectively standing-out among other potential (and equally qualified) candidates when it’s finally time to fill these open positions. 

Develop Skills

Volunteering can also help students grow in their learning. Through community service, students gain real-world experience and practice important habits like leadership, problem-solving, and time-management. Volunteering offers students the opportunity to apply their classroom learning to practical scenarios that have real implications. In other words, service-learning opportunities can offer the same skills-boosting opportunities as student internships, but with the added benefit of improving the lives of others.

Make Connections

Nonprofits partner with other businesses, organizations, and change-makers in their communities. Working with charity organizations is a great way for students to explore career paths, and nonprofit employees (even other volunteers) are usually more than happy to put their volunteers in touch with the right people. Furthermore, nonprofit professionals can offer helpful career advice to help guide students in their studies. 

Lead More Balanced Lives

While college is an immensely rewarding (and fun) experience, it comes with its share of stress. It’s a time when young adults learn to become independent, manage their time, and find their way in the “real world.”  Extra-curricular activities like volunteering can actually help volunteers with time-management and improve emotional well-being. In fact, there are many studies that cite the mental and physical health benefits of volunteering, benefits that can participate in community service encourages college students to become socially-minded individuals for life.

The Benefits of Volunteering Statistics 

It’s clear that volunteering is good for college students. And there is data to prove it. We’ve pulled together statistics on community service benefits from a variety of industry surveys and reports:

The Benefits of Volunteering Stats: Employment

  • Volunteering is associated with a 27% higher odds of employment.
  • Employers are 82% more likely to choose a candidate with volunteering experience.
  • Employers are 85% more likely to overlook resume flaws when the candidate’s resume includes volunteer experience. 

The Benefits of Volunteering Stats: Community Impact

  • The value of volunteer time in 2019 is $25.43 per hour, demonstrating the significant contributions volunteers make to their communities.  
  • A study by the University of Texas Austin found national service programs strengthen the overall health of communities. For example, citizens expressed fewer negative sentiments in communities with AmeriCorps programming.  
  • ⅓ of college student volunteers work with community youth service programs or educational institutions. Students tend to prefer tutoring and mentorship opportunities. 

The Benefits of Volunteering Stats: Volunteer Health

  • A 2018 study on volunteerism and health found that participants experienced an 8.5% increase in mental health, and a 4.3% decrease in depression after volunteering regularly. The same study found that participants experienced a 9% increase in physical health.
  • A UK survey for Community Service Volunteers (CSV) found that 48% of participants who volunteer for more than two years expressed reduced feelings of depression. 

Comparative Demographic Stats on Volunteering

  • 25.7% of college students volunteer, while 26.4% of teenagers volunteer and 31.3% of parents volunteer.
  • College students contribute $6.7 billion worth of service. Teenagers contribute $8.1 billion worth of service. Parents contribute $52.1 billion worth of service.
  • College students volunteer for a median of 34 hours annually. Teenagers volunteer for a median of 35 hours annually. Parents volunteer for a median of 48 hours per year. 

The Challenges of Engaging College Student Volunteers

Three quarters of entering college students want to have an impact on their communities. And they make for ideal volunteers; they’re skilled, have flexible schedules, and are invested in the future. Yet fewer college students volunteer than their high school counterparts and the general adult population. So what is accounting for the disconnect between good intentions and actually volunteering? 

Fast Company accredits the increase in college tuition prices and student loan debt for the recent decline in volunteering college students. The most common problems with volunteering at university tend to involve a lack of free time and feeling overworked. Growing anxiety over impending student debt means students are spending their free time working paid jobs to help finance their education and living expenses, leaving less time for volunteering. 

Common Barriers

Students may face the following barriers that can limit college volunteering

  • Not enough time: With classes, sports, clubs, and paying jobs taking priority, it can feel difficult to find time for volunteering.
  • Feeling stressed: Choosing a major, arranging internships, and finishing assignments; it can all be a bit overwhelming, and students may be reticent to add another activity to like community service to their schedules.
  • Financial strain: Americans are in $1.5 trillion worth of student debt. And college isn’t getting cheaper. College students may have to fulfill work-study, other scholarship requirements, or simply take on paying jobs, all while earning a degree. Additionally, students may not have transportation to opportunities off-campus. 
  • Lack of awareness: College students may simply not know how to volunteer in college is possible, or they may not know where to find volunteer opportunities. 

Charity organizations shouldn’t feel discouraged by the statistics. Campuses recognize the benefits of volunteer work for students. And, fortunately, colleges and universities are finding innovative ways to reduce barriers and encourage students to volunteer in college.

Establishing a Culture of Service: How Universities Can Support Student Volunteers

Colleges and universities are critical to building a culture of lifelong citizenship and service. Students are more likely to become engaged community members into adulthood when they volunteer as students. Likewise, individuals who do not volunteer as children or young adults are much less likely to volunteer as adults. 

Despite the challenges, there are plenty of ways faculty, educators, and community organizations can help engage college students and encourage the next generation of civically engaged adults. 

Forge Community Relationships

It’s helpful to understand the types of volunteer opportunities college students tend to go for, and establish relationships with organizations that can provide these opportunities. Nearly a third of college students volunteer with educational institutions or youth services organizations, and the most popular volunteer activity among college students is tutoring or mentoring. So many universities will partner with local public schools, United Way affiliates, and other organizations that serve youth.

Some opportunities can even help alleviate the burden of student loans. Programs like Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and the Shared Harvest Fund offer scholarships, even loan forgiveness in exchange for volunteering. These national programs are well-connected with nonprofits across the country, and look for previous community service experience in their applicants. 

Integrate Service on Campus

University-run student volunteering programs should aim to support an enriching educational experience for students while addressing a significant community need. Some universities integrate service into course learning objects or course content. This is often referred to as Service Learning. Service Learning allows students to take on volunteer opportunities that support classroom learning, in exchange for academic credit. There are innumerable benefits of Service Learning, and you can find the best practices for instructors and academic chairs in this article. Students find Service Learning especially engaging because they are encouraged to seek out opportunities that match their interests and career paths.

Other departments like Greek Life, Student Affairs, and Alumni Associations integrate community service with usual programming as a way to weave community service into the fabric of campus life. Some universities offer summer volunteering programs to keep students engaged with campus all year. This is a great alternative for students who are overbooked during the academic year. Programs like these provide key support for improving access to volunteerism opportunities. 

Encourage Innovation

College is unique in that it provides a safe place for students to explore themselves as thinkers, learners, and leaders. The University of Maryland capitalized on this idea, implementing the Do Good Institute. Housed in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, the program provides opportunities for students to “immerse themselves with and address significant social issues through hands-on learning opportunities.” The Do Good Institute invites entrepreneurialism by supporting students’ innovative solutions to real social challenges. Each year, the Do Good Challenge invites students to create a community impact project; students spend the year volunteering, advocating, fundraising, and pitching their solutions to social challenges in teams. This program not only fosters creativity and social awareness in young adults, but it also rewards a life-changing $20,000 scholarship to challenge winners (the University of Maryland also offers mini-grants to support social impact projects!). 

Reward Volunteerism

One way to encourage commitment to community service (and alleviate some financial stress) is to offer scholarships to civically engaged students. Even $1000 can make a substantial difference to college students. This will encourage students to track their volunteer hours and reflect on their impact, making it a more meaningful component to their university experience. 

If your department is unable to provide a financial reward, recognition for your most active students goes a long way, and can even lead to long term benefits. Establish a campus-wide community service award to the students who contributed substantial time and effort to a cause. A community service reward impresses future employers and recognized the efforts of community-minded individuals. Or, consider hosting a gala to celebrate your university’s most active volunteers. Recognition is an effective way to embolden students to make volunteering a regular part of their university experience. 

Centralize Volunteering Programs

Students who want to volunteer should be able to access opportunities through their university with ease. Successful campuses centralize their volunteer opportunities under one webpage of volunteer management system. Generally, departments like Campus Life or Student Engagement make for great “centers” for all things community service. Plus, these departments tend to have the know-how and resources when it comes to marketing upcoming events and opportunities. 

Measure Impact

If you want to offer financial rewards and scholarships for your most engaged student volunteers or recognize them for your efforts, you’ll need to track and report on their impact. There are some robust web-based tools on the market that can help you measure student impact and engagement, and even simplify student participation. Look for a system with a volunteer mobile app that reminds student volunteers about upcoming opportunities and allows them to log their hours; it’s an effective way to engage today’s busy, tech-savvy college students. 

One thing that every college campus wants is an environment of happy, engaged students. Being involved with community service alongside earning a degree can help make that happen. Students develop stronger relationships with faculty and their peers, shatter preconceived stereotypes of the world around them, and have a higher satisfaction throughout their college experience. College students volunteering benefits the campus by improving student retention and building enhanced community relationships. Having the right tools to measure student engagement, offering innovative programs that support higher education objectives, and building strong relationships with community organizations are all imperative factors when running a successful volunteer program on your campus.

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