To Get More Men to Volunteer, Colleges Must Make an Extra Effort

March 09, 2010

College men participate in campus activities at disproportionately low rates, but deliberate efforts to recruit them can help, according to the findings of a two-year study of 14 institutions that was presented here on Tuesday at the annual conference of Naspa—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

"We didn't want to find out how to force men to volunteer. We wanted to find out how to get them to willingly volunteer," said Gar E. Kellom, who led the study and directs the Men's Center for Leadership and Service at Saint John's University, an all-male institution in Collegeville, Minn.

Student-affairs officers packed a room to hear initial findings from the study, which was financed by a $600,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment. A full report, "Engaging College Men: Discovering What Works and Why," including case studies from each of the 14 campuses, will be published this summer by Men's Studies Press.

Early on, the colleges participating in the study recognized the benefits of "pied pipers," or peer leaders who could help promote and run service trips and activities, Mr. Kellom said. That kind of encouragement tended to increase participation, as did personal invitations from faculty or staff members, particularly face to face or by letter, he said.

Multiple reminders via e-mail and text message right up to the time of an event also led to better male turnout, Mr. Kellom said. To attract students who would be interested in an activity if only they showed up, he suggested having peers drop by to accompany them to it.

But increasing participation goes beyond advertising and recruiting. "It's how you structure the activities," Mr. Kellom said in an interview. He recommended that colleges form men's groups to support students' reflection and incubate their broader engagement. Several colleges involved in the project focused on religious activities, and some created men's spirituality groups.

From One Team to Another

Luther College, in Iowa, turned its attention to community service. Men there were less likely to participate, maybe because they didn't see other men getting involved, said Stuart M. Johnston, a counselor at the college. One male student, he said, left an all-female meeting of Alpha Phi Omega, a coeducational service group, thinking it was only for women.

Mr. Johnston had an idea. In 2008 he and the football coach introduced summer reading for the whole team. Over the summer, each player read Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx, a best-seller about football, masculinity, and service. Later, back on the campus, they discussed it in small groups, with coaches. "It was a safe environment," Mr. Johnston said. "The guys knew the other guys."

Peter Wehr, a senior and co-captain of the team, said the conversations about the book were profound and personal. "Having that place of open discussion, really informal, a lot of guys probably really grew in that moment," he said. "People spoke who I didn't expect to speak at all."

That academic year, some football players participated in service projects together. In January 2009, about 25 athletes participated in each of three movie nights that Mr. Johnston planned around the idea of vocation: career, service, and spiritual calling. Last spring several students attended campus dinners at which older male speakers shared their life stories.

The football players have also become core participants in a new group called Luther Athletes Serving Others, Mr. Johnston said. He attributes their increased involvement to the team’s discussions of service.

"When the coaching staff says, 'This is something that we do; this is just part of being on the team,'" he said, "it's like, 'Yeah, we just do this.'"

Mr. Wehr thinks of that as positive peer pressure. Students have encouraged their friends to do service projects, he said: "As they stepped up, their teammates saw them doing the work."

Putting Service on the Schedule

Hastings College, in Nebraska, used the grant to explore female and male students' reasons for pursuing service. Ronald D. Chesbrough, vice president for student affairs at Hastings, conducted a survey and series of focus groups and identified a difference between internally and externally motivating factors. Women, he said, spoke of a desire to help and an ethic of care, while men who participated in service projects were more likely to have done so because of a course requirement or scheduled team or club activity.

Mr. Chesbrough also emphasized the role of language in recruiting men. A service-learning instructor on the campus whose courses were predominantly female, he said, tried changing one of her titles from "Social Justice: A Service-Based Exploration" to "Working Toward Social Justice."

"She saw a pretty spontaneous increase in the number of men enrolled," Mr. Chesbrough said. "That plays to gender stereotypes, but those words were more likely to catch men's attention."

Involving greater proportions of college men in campus activities is an important goal, said Linda J. Sax, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

"All of the ways that women tend to be more involved than men," Ms. Sax said, "are the very types of college experiences that are the most beneficial." But attention to one gender should not come at the expense of the other, she said, expressing concern over branding certain activities as being "for men."

Male students need all the help they can get, said Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. "The problems of boys begin long before college," he said. "It's almost too late if we wait until college to try to engage boys in learning activities."

Among men entering college, 21 percent had spent at least three hours a week volunteering during their senior year of high school, compared with 31 percent of women, according to the most recent data from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. Men also reported having participated less in student clubs and groups, with 27 percent devoting at least three hours a week, compared with 38 percent of women.

Efforts to increase college men's engagement are scattered, Mr. Mortenson said, and national attention to the issue has been feeble. The 14-campus study is a good step, he said: "We have to start someplace."