New Works in the Field

The Kids Are Alright: The Promise and Reality of Youth Volunteering, 1974-2018

Editors’ Note: Robert Grimm and Nathan Dietz discuss the findings of the new report from the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, “Good Intentions, Gap in Action,” on youth civic engagement.

Over the past several weeks, the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida have proved that young people have the civic skills to move public opinion and drive the debate over public policy. While tragedies like the shootings in Parkland can galvanize entire communities and spur them into action, every year, millions of high school and college students throughout the country are also working for change.

Each year on average, between 9 and 10 million youth and young adults under age 25 volunteer their time to work with organizations that provide needed services to neighborhoods and communities. In recent years, between 21 and 23 percent of the under-25 age group has volunteered with one or more organizations; the volunteer rate declined by a significant amount in 2006, 2007 and 2013, but increased significantly in 2003 and 2008. The work provided by younger volunteers is important because it allows organizations in the social sector to help people in need. Volunteering also provides benefits for young volunteers themselves: it helps young people form connections with others in the community and build social networks that can support them through their transition to adulthood. Many young people are introduced to volunteering and service through programs that benefit both the organization and the volunteers themselves. Among these are school-based volunteering and service programs, which are sponsored by high schools and colleges, and service learning programs, which involve the integration of school-based service into coursework.

In “Good Intentions, Gap in Action,” recently published by the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland, we present never-before-available statistics that show how high school and college students contribute time (by volunteering) and money (by donating to charity) to bring about community change. Our data source, the Volunteer Supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS), allows us to calculate both state-level statistics and modern trends in student civic participation.

In fact, as the figure below illustrates, we can use the CPS to study historical differences in volunteering, since the Volunteer Supplement was also conducted in 1974 and 1989:


The “S-shaped curve” in the volunteer rate is a staple feature of historical volunteer statistics in America and elsewhere. The first bend in the curve is the drop in volunteer rates between teenagers and college-age young adults. In part, this drop is due to the life challenges that young adults often confront, especially if they end up going to college and living away from home. In most recent years, the volunteering rate for college students is almost always lower than, or essentially the same as, the rate for high schoolers. This finding is striking, given that the under-25 college student population is older, better educated, and from more affluent households – all factors that are associated with higher volunteering rates – than the population of high school students.

The second bend is the rise in volunteer rates as young adults complete the transition to adulthood and enter into “midlife.” America’s volunteer workforce tends to be dominated by working-age adults, ages 25-64, who often have families, careers, and stable places in their communities, and who are more likely to volunteer than any other age group. The third bend in the S-shaped curve is the slow decline in volunteering among older adults (ages 65 and over) as they age. When they do volunteer, though, members of the 65-and-over age group are generally among the most dedicated workers in the social sector.

The figure also shows how volunteering rates in each age group have changed from the mid-1970s to the present and suggest some possible areas for further research on the history of volunteering in the US. Overall, the volunteering rate for all adults is about the same as it was in the mid-1970s, but adults in midlife (ages 25-44) actually volunteer less often than they did forty-plus years ago. All age groups have experienced declining volunteering rates since the historically high rates of the 2003-2005 – the “post-9/11 period” – but the rate for the over-25 population has continued to decrease in the years since then. In contrast, although volunteering rates for both high school and college students dropped sharply in 2006, they have remained relatively stable since then.

While some would call this good news, the “gap in action” is disappointing, given the fact that so many students make the move from high school to college with the highest aspirations for doing good. A 2016 survey from the Higher Education Research Institute’s (HERI) Freshman Survey found an all-time high in the percentage of first-year college students who said “helping others who are in difficulty” was a “very important” or “essential” personal objective. HERI also found an all-time high in college students’ desire to be a community leader, but the largest increases in support for both questions have occurred during the last ten years, during a period when volunteer rates have been stagnant.

This is the challenge that we illustrate with “Good Intentions, Gap in Action”: while volunteer rates have fallen off for all age groups since the all-time highs of the 2003-2005 period, they have declined the most among the age groups that are supposed to carry the most weight in the volunteer workforce. Along with adults ages 65 and over, high and college students are among the only population groups whose volunteering rates have not declined since 2006. This shows that the system that introduces young people into volunteering – led by social institutions such as family, religious organizations, and the educational system – is still working to replenish the social sector with new energy and enthusiasm.

However, it needs to do more for two reasons. One is that demand for opportunities to do good has skyrocketed in recent years, especially among young people, and organizations need to do more to meet it. Recent events like the March 26 March for Our Lives and the April 20 National School Walkout may be fueled, in part, by pent-up demand by young people for opportunities to effect change. The other is that volunteer rates for the over-25 generations are declining, and we need the youngest age groups to compensate so that the social sector can continue to deliver needed services.

In this historic moment, when youth engagement is dominating the news, the time is right to develop more quality service opportunities throughout the country for young people. The high interest in community engagement by today’s young adults underscores the need for parents, high schools, colleges and universities, and others to encourage greater levels of volunteering. We should not miss the opportunity to translate this generation’s interest in community engagement into action, by showing them how volunteering can help to change people’s lives – including their own.

-Robert T. Grimm, Jr. and Nathan Dietz

Robert T. Grimm, Jr. is director of the Do Good Institute and a professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Nathan Dietz is Associate Research Scholar at the Do Good Institute and a senior research associate in the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute.


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