Make Colleges Work For the Community

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By Andrew Hahn

What prominent institution works as an occasional player in youth work but has the ability and resources to do far more?

The underachiever is higher education – the country’s nearly 10,000 post-secondary colleges and universities.

In a “glass half full and half empty” scenario, post-secondary schools are engaged in many worthy and terrific initiatives. At their best they reach out to their communities, offering residents access to education; promote student volunteerism and service learning that augments the work of many youth-serving agencies; and conduct research, planning and development studies that benefit local citizens. Half full.

But it’s safe to say that the vast majority of America’s 2 million 14- to 17-year-olds living in poverty have never visited a college, never met a professional who works in one, and never been touched in any way by a youth development or education program under college or university auspices. While laudable, current outreach efforts are often temporal and are not embedded in the mission, vision and central activities of the higher education institution. Half empty.

Helping institutions of higher education (IHEs) to play a larger and more meaningful role in youth development, especially for America’s most vulnerable high school-age youths, is a challenge that has not coalesced in policy, program or philanthropy circles.

The field needs to go deeper than the typical gown-town relationships marked by “noblesse oblige.” Progress on this front will require “push and pull” strategies.

The IHEs will attempt to “pull” community initiatives into their orbit when the initiatives connect well to their interests, missions and capacities. That is all for the good and should be supported by donors and policy-makers.

Advocates from community youth programs, however, can play an aggressive “push” role by looking closely at the tax-free status of IHEs and the adequacy of their social contributions in lieu of tax payments.

A related lever of social change may be bargaining over IHE building permit applications and requests to expand. Some of the most notable examples of positive university-community partnerships – Trinity College in Hartford and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia – grew out of expansionary development plans from the universities. Harvard recently contributed to an after-school youth development fund, just when its interest in building a new campus in a working-class neighborhood surfaced. Community organizers need to learn these signals and time their “push” strategies accordingly.

Research shows the rich variety of ways that colleges approach this work. Interested in IHE involvement in youth sports and recreation? See the National Youth Sports Programs coordinated by the National Youth Sports Corp. (www. nyscorp. org).

Curious about campus roles in community economic and workforce development? See scores of reports from the Community Outreach Partnership Centers ( Campus Compact ( offers leadership and dozens of superb practical publications on the civic purposes of higher ed. And COOL ( works to promote volunteerism among students.

The literature reveals that many post-secondary institutions are content to merely provide scholarships. Others focus on boosting math and science training for high schoolers. College access and other “pipeline” efforts, as well as community service, are quite popular.

Some post-secondary institutions work on the front lines of deep education reform. Johns Hopkins University has led the development of what used to be called “lab schools” but are now called professional development schools. Here, sound educational practices, including staff training, are imported from higher education to urban high schools.

Other colleges help to create new entities such as “middle colleges,” which offer alternative high school programs with seamless transitions into two-year colleges. Some colleges are involved in after-school learning programs and use the summer months for learning as well as earning.

Within the range of efforts by colleges and universities, however, my ongoing examination has turned up three findings: First, most efforts do not focus on the most vulnerable high school-age youth, or they have only the loosest information about those whom they do serve. Second, the scale of local efforts is often modest. And third, sustainability is rare.

Here’s a practical idea: Every one of America’s 10,000 post-secondary institutions should employ at least one youth development expert with expertise on local program design and implementation. Professors of adolescent development need not apply! This position is for real community-based youth managers.

Higher education entities (along with hospitals) are often the most heavily capitalized resource in disadvantaged communities. Youth workers in search of support can’t afford to ignore this sector. Rather, they must make it a high priority to “infiltrate” these institutions and help them evolve toward strong, sustainable youth development.

Andrew Hahn is a professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.