Writing in the Journal of Service Learning in Higher Education in January of 2018, Dr. T. Andrew Carswell of Gannon University, a Catholic university in Erie, Pennsylvania, describes a research project undertaken to discover the capacity of service-learning courses to change student attitudes about poverty. His premise is that we know through other research that Americans are as likely to attribute poverty to lack of effort among the poor as to circumstances beyond their control. Attitudes of attribution also affect views of social programs to address poverty.
Meanwhile service-learning courses have been shown through research to improve student outcomes for citizenship, empathy, compassion, and understanding of social problems. Students are more likely to exhibit greater "efficacy to make the world a better place" (Carswell). Though this type of goal makes sense for a course at a Catholic university such as Gannon, or Xavier, and many liberal arts schools do include such goals in their missions, traditional-classroom courses often bypass such goals in favor of more academically assessable outcomes.
Students in Dr. Carswell's upper-level capstone psychology class engaged in 30 hours of community service working alongside underprivileged people, while studying poverty in the classroom. One of the outcomes of the course was that students would have a more positive view of people living in poverty, and Dr. Carswell set out to measure whether this was achieved.
Students in the course chose from four community groups to work with, including an after-school program, a food bank, a group that worked with immigrants and refugees, and a group that worked with recently released criminal offenders. The option let students decide what type of work they wanted to do, and many worked with more than one group. Classroom contact hours were reduced, (perhaps a luxury of a senior capstone course) and writing assignments asked students to draw connections between scholarly articles on poverty and experiences at the sites. Attitudes were gauged using pre and post-course completion of what's called the Undergraduate Perceptions of Poverty Tacking Survey.
Dr. Carswell found that student attitudes improved toward social welfare programs, and toward their own willingness to take action to help those in poverty. Student belief that people in poverty have limited access to valuable resources also increased. However, there was no real change in student attitudes toward perceived differences between the poor and non-poor. Nor was there an increase in belief in rights to basic necessities. Dr. Carswell discusses several possible reasons for the non-change in perceptions of in-group/out-group differences, including research that suggests this type of intergroup contact best affects intergroup attitudes when the groups are of equal status and the contact is cooperative in nature.
This last point relates to the ongoing movement within service-learning to effect meaningful change and to avoid perpetuating a classist, "service"-based hierarchy. This broad goal may prove service-learning's most elusive. (See my interview with Dr. Randy Stoecker on this problem http://cat.xula.edu/food/conversation-63/.) And we should also keep in mind that Dr. Carswell's sample was 18 students in one class. Yet, his results are encouraging when we consider the degree to which misperceptions about the poor permeate our society and drive public policy. Dr. Carswell's students and many others who complete courses like these will go on to shape policy and help shift perceptions as they move into professional society.
Though there is much work to be done, examples like these affirm the vital work of service-learning and higher education.